(RNS) — The youngest victim of the mass shooting at a church in Texas wasn't even born yet.
A state law passed in 2003 requires that the fetus Crystal Holcombe was carrying when she was fatally shot Sunday (Nov. 5) along with other worshippers at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs be counted like the other victims, who authorities say numbered 26 and ranged in age up to 77. Holcombe was in her eighth month of pregnancy.
This and other laws that grant full rights to the unborn form some of the newest terrain in U.S. law and are highly controversial. They frequently divide abortion rights and anti-abortion activists, with the first group saying they can be used to criminalize pregnant women while the second group says they are intended to prevent domestic violence and increase penalties for abuse.
Texas was among the first states to enact a feticide law in 2003. If Devin Kelley had not died after the shooting, the law would have required he be charged with the murder of Holcombe's unborn child.
At least 38 states have fetal homicide laws, including Nevada, California, Virginia, Florida, Arizona and Colorado, all of which have been the site of mass shootings. In addition to Texas, 22 states have enacted feticide laws that apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy, including conception.
None of these laws apply to women who have legal abortions. However, opponents of feticide laws say they are more often used to prosecute women whose drug use or other illegal behavior results in the termination of a pregnancy than men who abuse pregnant women.
The first feticide laws were triggered by the murder of Laci Peterson by her husband, Scott Peterson, in California in 2002. Like Crystal Holcombe, Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant at the time of her death.
Murder, usually related to domestic violence, is a leading cause of death for pregnant women in the U.S., according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.