After three years of tireless campaigning, Effie Steele feels that the murder of her daughter and unborn grandson is finally vindicated.
Steele has worked with state legislators since her daughter’s death in an effort to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which passed this year and went into effect this month.
The law allows prosecutors to charge someone with causing the death of an unborn child, making homicide of a pregnant woman a double homicide.
“In my view, murdering a pregnant woman is the peak of domestic violence,” said Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, one of the legislators who worked with Steele and sponsored the bill.
Steele’s daughter, Ebony Robinson, was nine months pregnant when she was murdered by the baby’s father, a man who had molested her for years and threatened her to keep her quiet.
Robinson opened up to her mom about the abuse the night before she was killed, Steele said. She had named the baby Elijah, and she was looking forward to being a mom, she said.
Steele couldn’t believe when the killer wasn’t charged with Elijah’s murder as well as Robinson’s.
“This was my only grandchild, and the state didn’t care,” she said. “It was like rubbing salt into my wounds.”
She researched the topic and found that former President George Bush signed a federal Unborn Victims of Violence law in 2004, after it passed through Congress by one vote.
Similar laws are already on the books in 25 states. Ten other states have partial legal coverage for unborn victims, and North Carolina was the last Southern state to pass a law about violence against pregnant women.
A couple of months after her daughter’s death, Steele decided to lobby for a North Carolina law herself, partly just to keep her busy.
There were two other parents working with her at the beginning, but she ended up being the bill’s most prominent advocate.
“Once I got to the point where I could breathe, I knew I had to do something to get this bill passed,” she said.
She began speaking in high schools and gathering petition signatures supporting the law, but it was only when Republicans gained control of the N.C. General Assembly this year that the bill even got a hearing.
The law recognizes personhood at any time after conception, a controversial stance for pro-choice advocates.
Paige Johnson, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood N.C., said the law would mark the first time that North Carolina recognized a fetus as a person, especially right after conception. But the organization did not take a position on the law and worked with legislators to ensure that it could not be used to restrict women’s choices regarding abortion.
Only four senators, all Democrats, voted against the bill. The vote in the House was closer, with 39 voting against it.
Folwell said the personhood argument was what kept the bill from being heard for years, but after he heard Steele’s story, he felt compelled to work for her cause. He said all the parents wanted was a hearing — and that he knew Steele’s powerful testimony would have an effect on the legislature.
“We knew someone had to keep pushing it, that if we dropped the ball, someone else might not pick it up,” Steele said.
Steele is active in chapters of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence and North Carolina Right to Life. Getting involved in these activities, and campaigning for the law, helped her cope with Robinson’s death and her anger toward the killer, she said.
“Sometimes it takes a tragedy to propel us to action,” she said. “There’s no way we can erase the murder of a child or a grandchild, but I didn’t want my baby’s life to be snuffed out and nothing positive come from it.”
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