BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — A baby died May 24 at Kern Medical after being pulled from the womb with a fractured skull. Police believe the baby girl's parents are to blame, but the case has presented a legal conundrum eliciting strong opinions about how to proceed.
The mother is believed to have been 30 weeks into her pregnancy when she arrived at the hospital, according to a search warrant affidavit filed by Bakersfield police.
A baby girl was delivered with "traumatic injuries... that led to the child's death." It's not clear based on the account in the warrant whether the infant survived for any length of time outside the womb in her battered condition.
Medical staff noted "severe bruising" on the woman's stomach, which she attributed to a fall while mopping. Skeptical medical staff alerted police, who came for an interview.
It was during that interview with officers that police say she told them she and her boyfriend agreed for him to beat her in an attempt to kill the baby.
Police say she told them he struck her stomach with his fists "at least 10 times," after which she "stopped feeling the baby move."
In a separate interview, police say the boyfriend denied hurting the woman or the unborn child.
Eyewitness News has chosen not to name the woman or her boyfriend, because they haven't been charged with crimes.
There's debate in the law enforcement community about whether this action amounts to a crime.
Deputy District Attorney Gina Pearl is investigating the case. She declined to comment on it specifically Monday, but in a phone conversation said the case is complicated.
"We're actively reviewing it," she said. "It's a unique case. We're still investigating. There's a lot of different angles."
The penal code defines murder as the "unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought."
California law allows abortion until viability, which is generally believed to be between 24 and 26 weeks. However, there are rare cases of babies surviving even earlier deliveries.
Killing a fetus is also allowed in cases where continuing the pregnancy threatens the life and health of the mother. Critics of abortion say the health of the mother is a broad concept that allows an exception in too many circumstances.
Murder charges will also not be pursued if "the act was solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus."
In seeking to determine how the aforementioned abortion laws may apply, Eyewitness News requested specific information about the birth from the DA and the police. Neither agency was able to furnish that information at the time of this writing. Pearl said the coroner's report on the baby would provide information they would consider as they decide what to do.
Eyewitness News polled leading advocates on both sides of the political aisle about the situation and found broad consensus that what allegedly happened, should not have.
"I was shocked, and I wanted to burst into tears," said Marylee Shrider, executive director of Right to Life Kern County. "It's pretty sickening to read."
A founder of Pro Choice Kern County, Jennifer Bloomquist, didn't like it either.
"Of course, we don't want anyone to suffer violence," she said.
But the two split after that.
Pro Choice Kern County says this story makes a perfect case for more legal abortion and education about it, something Bloomquist says is lacking.
"We can prevent future cases by offering greater access and even funding for abortions," Bloomquist said. "Safe and legal abortions, not induced miscarriages."
A visit to a reproductive health professional, she said, would have given the couple a chance to consider a range of options before resorting to the alleged beating.
Shrider challenged the father in the story.
"Even if she thought of it, what kind of man would say, 'Yeah, I'll punch you in the stomach until the baby is dead?'" she said.
Right to Life was quick to point out what they describe as inconsistencies in the law. When a pregnant mother is killed in a murder or a drunken driving crash, the government charges defendants with double murder, ascribing personhood to the fetus.
"So the only difference in this case is the mother didn't want the baby," Shrider said. "The baby is a human being, or she's not. The fact that she's wanted or not wanted is not relevant. It doesn't make her less human."
Shrider said the exact wording of the law may be unclear, but she hopes the district attorney pursues murder charges.
"On moral grounds, grounds of decency, no, there's no gray areas here," she said.
But where Shrider sees black and white, Bloomquist sees gray.
"It's a definitely a gray area," she said.
What if the district attorney does press murder charges?
"If that is what the DA chose to do, I would trust their judgment," Bloomquist said. "We don't have all the facts. And there's no way that I personally can make a call on this case."