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DISABLED VICTIM IS NOW A PRO-LIFE TOOL

It's too bad she can't understand irony. What else would a 22-year-old make of the state of Florida's sudden interest in her? What else would she make of Florida's belated desire to stand guard over her body?

J.D.S., as she is known, was abandoned into the arms of the state before she was 3. When she turned 18 without in any way becoming an adult, the state failed to provide a guardian. When she was 22, the caregivers in the state-licensed group home failed to protect her from rape.

Only when the victim was five months pregnant did the entire system, including the governor, suddenly sit up and take notice.

But J.D.S., who weighs only 88 pounds and suffers from seizures, autism and cerebral palsy, is mentally retarded to the age of an infant. So she can't understand irony. Indeed, she can't speak. She can't say who raped her. She can't evaluate the risks of pregnancy. And she most certainly cannot understand how her body was transformed into a symbol, a linguistics test, by opponents of abortion.

One thing is universally agreed upon. This pregnant rape victim needs someone else to oversee medical care, to make decisions about her health, the health of the fetus, even to collect DNA evidence for the crime.

When the state originally asked for a guardian, there was no talk about an abortion. Nevertheless, the governor, First Brother Jeb Bush, personally intervened to ask that that a second and separate guardian be appointed for the fetus.

Maybe if you were Jeb Bush, you too would prefer to have the focus on a fetus. Florida's Department of Children and Families, where J.D.S. languished, is so scandal-ridden that it "lost" hundreds of children in the system, including a Miami girl missing for 15 months before DCF officials knew she was gone.

But this was also a pre-emptive strike, a political pro-life ploy to give the "unborn" the same legal status as the "born." Bush's move is part of a well-calibrated attempt to legally define a fetus as an "unborn child" and define a fertilized egg as a "person."

As an ally and anti-abortion activist, Brian Fahling of the American Family Association said approvingly, "Something has to be said, finally, about who occupies the womb." Well, something is being said. And not just in Florida. We're witnessing a linguistic coup through laws and regulations designed to separate the woman from her womb and, of course, from her right to decide.

Last year, the other Bush administration, run by brother George, began allowing states to extend health care coverage directly to the "unborn child." The regulations talk about enrolling fetuses in the state Children's Health Insurance Program, as if pregnant women were just minivans delivering them to the doctor.

This year, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act is back before the Congress, renamed for the horrendous murder of Laci Peterson, eight months pregnant. Well, there's not a soul who doesn't recoil from the special horror of violence against a pregnant woman. Many states have feticide laws that coexist with abortion laws. Others have laws, like "Jenny's Law" in Connecticut, that add huge penalties for an assault on a woman that results in the loss of her pregnancy.

But the sponsors of the UVVA have deliberately chosen a way to challenge law and language. This bill would create a new class of federal crimes dealing with an assault on an "unborn child" -- fetus or fertilized egg -- as a separate "person."

Language is not trivial. In 1989, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that fetuses can't have guardians because they aren't legally people. This is the precedent that Jeb Bush is challenging.

If an "unborn child" carries the same legal weight as the woman, so much for abortion rights. If someone can be convicted of murdering an "unborn child," how long before a doctor can be so accused, or a woman? If there are two guardians arguing over health -- one for the rape victim, one for the fetus -- who wins? Can every fetus have a guardian?

In a final irony, the state that failed this profoundly disabled woman in so many ways has failed her again. A judge postponed the guardian decision until June 2, past the point of pregnancy that may effectively preclude any abortion option.

J.D.S. suddenly, briefly, cynically, became the center of attention. Not as a woman, but as womb. We know little about her health, less about her fetus' health. She was lost in a battle of words, a fight over language as biased as the label "pro-life." She now returns to her normal status: neglect.

Washington Post Writers Group

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