Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Tammy Skinner Self-Abortion Case
(10/31/2006)

Tammy Wynette Skinner was a poor 22-year-old single mother on Welfare with two young children and nine months pregnant with a third. She says she somehow managed to miss the fact that she was pregnant until late in her second trimester (though she has also said that her boyfriend refused to help her pay for a timely abortion), so she decided to carry the pregnancy to term. On the very day she was due to deliver, contractions began and sent her into a panic. Skinner drove to an auto dealer's parking lot, took a gun and shot herself in the belly, killing her about-to-be born infant and seriously wounding herself. A third trimester abortion is illegal in Virginia, and local prosecutors charged her under Statute 18.2-71* that makes it a criminal act for "any person [to] administer to, or cause … any drug or other thing" to destroy an unborn child.

Circuit Court Judge W. R. Carter agreed with Skinner's defense attorney's argument that the statute was not intended to apply to mothers undertaking their own abortions without the assistance of a third party, for the violator in the statute is referred to as "he' while the mother is designated as "she." Carter dismissed the case. Prosecutors then went to a grand jury, which duly delivered an indictment against Tammy Skinner. That was thrown out of court as well. Now she no longer faces any criminal charges for shooting herself and her unborn child. She was found guilty of a misdemeanor for filing a false report to police, when she initially told officers a man had shot her.

Predictably, this case has conservatives and anti-abortion activists fuming and pro-abortion forces desperately searching for rationalizations. One hopes that less ideological parties are bothered by it as well. Perhaps there would be evidence of this if most of the national media had not completely ignored the story. It is fair to ask why this is the case, just as it is fair to conclude that the news media's failure to give a story that raises as many crucial issues as this one more publicity than, say, Madonna's adoption efforts shows how trivial and cowardly the "Fourth Estate" has become.

The commentary that has been published, mostly by "pro-life" blogs, completely submerges the real issues in order in order to use this sad event as culture war ammunition. For example, conservative columnist Kevin McCullough condemned both judges as "liberal lackies, parading as judges." In fact, both judges ruled in the manner that conservatives supposedly want: they followed the law as written by the legislature, and did not fit it to some personal political agenda. Virginia's statute is uncommonly sloppily drafted, and does appear to leave mothers-to-be out of its prohibition on performing late term abortions. Moreover, what little precedent there is from other states supports the Virginia judges' rulings. The courts of both Georgia and Florida, hardly bastions of liberalism, have held that similar statutes in those states were not intended to apply to self-aborting mothers. Virginia itself has never before prosecuted a woman for killing her own unborn child.

Conservatives who argue that judges should apply the law and not legislate from the bench seldom have the integrity to applaud judges who do so when it involves strictly applying laws the Right doesn't like, which leads the Scoreboard to question the sincerity of their attacks on "activist judges." Could it be that their real objective, unethically disguised by their rhetoric, is to have conservative activist judges replace liberal ones? You be the judge.

Meanwhile, defenders of Skinner's outrageous act are attempting to pin the blame on the lack of access to abortion information and resources, or her boy-friend, or anyone other than the woman who pulled the trigger. As usual, ethical clarity is lost in the battle of political agendas. Yet the ethical calls on the Skinner case are surprisingly clear.

  1. Tammy Skinner committed premeditated murder.
    The fact that the particular kind of premeditated murder she committed is one that legislators lack either the ability, will or courage to criminalize does not change the fact that this is what she did, and that it is wrong. Laws do not change what is right or wrong, only what society chooses or has the will to punish. Arguments that an unborn baby is not a "human life" on the day it is due to be delivered are disingenuous arguments of convenience defying logic, common sense, and science. There is certainly a problem determining at what point a fetus acquires human rights, but if it is murder to kill a child minutes after it leaves the womb, it is murder to do so minutes before. Skinner told detectives that she "wanted to harm the baby." She knew what she was doing.

  2. Neither her predicament nor her options justified her actions or rendered them less wrong.
    Skinner has said that she "did not have any choices." She did. Virginia is one of many states that has a safe haven law that allows two weeks for mothers to give unharmed newborns to hospitals without the threat of prosecution for neglect. She could have designated the child for adoption. She could have walked into an office of Planned Parenthood and received assistance. "The lack of access to information about options to deal with unwanted pregnancies"…a dubious claim to begin with…doesn't relieve Skinner of any accountability and responsibility for her actions. When the alternative is shooting your baby with a gun, you aggressively seek other options until you find a better one.

    Even dropping your newborn child in a mailbox is better than shooting it in the womb.

  3. Stupidity and ignorance can explain unethical conduct, but they don't change its character.
    Tammy Skinner is obviously irresponsible and dim-witted. Already burdened with two children she could not support, she engaged in sexual relations with a low-life louse (in addition to berating her for being pregnant, it was he who first suggested a gun-shot abortion). She never considered the possibility that this may have caused her to be with child until midway through her pregnancy, and then settled on the brilliant plan of shooting her baby while it was still inside her as the best solution to her problems. There is a public interest in helping people with the reasoning abilities of Skinner make difficult life decisions, but she is still accountable for the bad decisions she makes.

Hopefully, the Virginia legislature will pass new legislation to close the self-abortion loop-hole that the murder of Tammy Skinner's baby exposed. The Scoreboard also hopes that the Right will stop using the case to attack the courts and the Left will restrain itself from diverting accountability from Skinner long enough to agree with the basic proposition that shooting an unborn child on its birthday is wrong.

That can't be too difficult.

Can it?

* §18.2-71. Producing abortion or miscarriage, etc.; penalty.

Except as provided in other sections of this article, if any person administer to, or cause to be taken by a woman, any drug or other thing, or use means, with intent to destroy her unborn child, or to produce abortion or miscarriage, and thereby destroy such child, or produce such abortion or miscarriage, he shall be guilty of a Class 4 felony.

(Code 1950, § 18.1-62; 1960, c. 358; 1970, c. 508; 1975, cc. 14, 15.)

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