Fetal homicide, death penalty, and the neoliberal agenda

Last Monday, three young women who had been missing for about a decade were able to escape from their sequestration in Cleveland, Ohio. Ariel Castro, the kidnapper, has been arraigned on seven charges for kidnapping and rape. He could also face the death penalty for fetal homicide, by causing miscarriages on his victims. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty explained, “The law of Ohio calls for the death penalty for those most depraved criminals who commit aggravated murder during the course of a kidnapping.”

When I first read this, I felt that this was justified. I was outraged by the suffering those women had to go through, and I was relieved that there was a way to punish him by taking his life as he had denied them of their own lives for so long. But then I realized my initial reaction went against everything I believed in, and I was appalled. I have always been adamantly against the death penalty. How can we strive for a just and humane society if our response is to kill criminals? And the argument the prosecutor is using to have him face the death penalty is that he “committed aggravated murder” of unborn fetuses. Looking back, I think that what caused my initial reaction was fear. Fear that this kind of atrocity can happen. Just knowing that these women had been sequestered and tortured, I felt that this could have been me; it was a direct attack on my person as a woman. And I wanted them to take his life away. I was suddenly going to trust the American justice system to decide who can live and who must die. After all, doesn’t he incarnate evil for beating up his daughters’ mother and for abusing women?

What I should be afraid of is the precedent the prosecutor will set if Ariel Castro gets the death penalty. Pregnant women are already being imprisoned throughout the country for `endangering the lives’ of their fetuses. If the precedent is set, will women be in danger of facing the death penalty for having an abortion or a miscarriage?

At the same time, Ariel Castro getting the death penalty sees the abuse of the three women through only one lens, that of their fecundity and womanhood. Why is it that the daily suffering, threats, violence, rapes, trauma, and inhumanity those women were subjected to are not seen as being more important than those unborn fetuses? The violence and abuse they went through is normalized, the press is shocked but not outraged. Instead, the biggest crime was to prevent the birth of those children.

Our understanding of this unfathomable tragedy is constructed around this country’s politics on women’s reproductive rights and the personhood debate instead of seeing it as another example of dehumanized violence. Why can’t we give these women more respect by focusing on their survival? Instead of focusing on their bodies as reproductive vehicles, why can’t we focus on them as women whose spirits enabled them to live and survive?

We need to be more careful and not let our emotions control the way we understand the media construction around such events, no matter how nightmarish they might be. As women, we are vulnerable to neoliberal policies, such as feticide laws, that aim to control our bodies. As citizens, we should question a society that still resorts to the death penalty. For the past week, the phrases fetal homicide and death penalty have been covering up the news nationally and worldwide and they are part of the neoliberal agenda to instill fear in all of us and to reiterate our vulnerability in the face of evil, embodied by Ariel Castro this week. But we need to remember that, just like all of us, Ariel Castro is a member of this society. He does not incarnate evil; he embodies the violence and misogyny of our society.

(Image credit: The Atlantic / Lauren Giardano)

About Anne Charlotte Corbel

Anne Charlotte Corbel has worked at the Center for Transnational Women's Issues and completed her studies at Towson University.