Turkish immigrant Aysun Sesen, 25, was pregnant with her four-month child when she was found stabbed twice in the abdomen, alongside her injured mother-in-law, in their Toronto home. She later died of her wounds and the baby was born stillborn. Sesan’s husband, Turan Cocelli, 29, was charged with one count of second-degree murder and one count of assault. The police said, “In Canadian criminal law, an unborn child is not a being until that child emerges and takes a breath … in this particular case, there is no question, because the baby was not born alive and never took a breath.”
The case renewed a public debate about whether unborn victims of violence and their families deserve recourse to justice in law. Newspapers covered the story and noted that in Canada, second charges for fetal homicide could not be laid against an assailant. CTV’s The Verdictdedicated an hour-long show to examining the issue of fetal rights when crimes are committed against the mother. Both Campaign Life Coalition and the Canadian Family Action Coalition renewed longstanding calls for the introduction of an Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
The Sesen case is just the latest in a long line of well-publicized cases. In February, Roxanne Fernando, 24, was found dead in a ditch. She was in the “early stages of pregnancy,” but a 17-year-old pleaded guilty on Oct. 17 to first-degree murder. He had previously been involved with the woman and told police he killed her because she refused to get an abortion. Two adults are also facing charges related to Fernando’s murder.
In 2005, there were three high-profile murders of pregnant women: Manjit Panghali of Surrey, B.C., as well as Liana White and Olivia Talbot of Edmonton.
On Oct. 19, Jared Baker, 21, was found guilty of murdering his childhood friend, Olivia Talbot, when she was seven months pregnant. He claimed the unborn child was speaking to him and he subsequently shot her five times with a .22-calibre rifle.
Last December, White’s husband Michael was convicted of second-degree murder and now faces 15 years in jail.
The trial of Panghali’s husband, Mukhtiar, is underway.
As Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer for Campaign Life Coalition, said: “How much more evidence is necessary for the courts, the prime minister and the general public to recognize two victims in these crimes?”
In every one of these cases, first- or second- degree murder charges were laid for the killing of the mother, but no charges were pursued for the violent deaths of their unborn children. Their families have not been pleased.
The family of Aysun Sesen has called for a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to have the law changed so unborn victims of violence are recognized in law and their mothers’ assailants can be punished for two crimes. As Mary Talbot, mother of Olivia Talbot, told CTV’s The Verdict, there are two victims, so there should be two charges. On the same show, Panghali’s sister made the same plea. Interestingly, when they were pressed by host Paula Todd about how this would affect the abortion debate – extending fetal rights to victims of crime might prevent abortionists from “terminating a pregnancy,” it was implied – both family members said they supported “the right to choose,” but once a woman has chosen to keep her child, the unborn baby should be protected in law. Mary Talbot dismissed as ridiculous the notion that an unborn victims of violence act would even affect the abortion law.
In May 2006, the standing committee on procedure and House affairs deemed MP Leon Benoit’s private member’s unborn victims of violence bill non-votable. Benoit appealed the decision, but a memo from the Prime Minister’s Office said such a bill would be unconstitutional, because it would undermine abortion in Canada. The committee upheld its previous decision.
Benoit has said he will re-introduce the bill and Liberal MP Paul Steckle (Huron-Bruce, Ont.) told the media recently that MPs are working to write legislation narrow enough to apply only to women who are victims of crime so the law would not be used to prosecute women who procure abortions or healthcare professionals who commit them.
A LifeCanada-Environics poll released last month found that 72 per cent of Canadians, including 75 per cent of women, want the law changed to grant unborn victims of violence protection under the law. Two-thirds of American states (and the federal government), as well as most European countries, have laws that permit charges to be laid when a pregnant woman’s unborn child is harmed or killed during the commission of a crime against the mother.
Statistics show the need for such legislation, because pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to violent crime. Nearly one in five abused women report violence during pregnancy in Canada and in the United States, murder is the leading cause of death among pregnant women.
As CLC national president Jim Hughes noted, if Benoit’s bill had passed, “the murder of both of these babies would be recognized.” Hughes hopes that the media attention paid to these horrific crimes will lead the government to both meet the families of the victims to hear their heartbreaking stories and to introduce legislation recognizing the unborn victims of violence.