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Fetal Homicide: A Question of When Do We Become Human

Can a Fetus be a Victim of Murder?


An ex-husband tells his estranged pregnant wife he is going to "stomp it out of her." Is this a case of murder of an unborn child?

In 1969, Teresa Keeler, eight months pregnant, was beaten unconscious by her jealous ex-husband, Robert Keeler, who told her during the attack that he was going to "stomp it out of her." Later, at the hospital, Keeler delivered her little girl, who was still born and suffered from a fractured skull.

Prosecutors attempted to charge Robert Keeler with the beating of his wife and for the murder of the fetus, "Baby Girl Vogt" named with her fathers last name.

The California Supreme Court dismissed the charges, saying that only someone born alive could be killed, and that the fetus was not a human being.

Due to public pressure the murder statute was eventually amended to say that murder charges can only apply to fetuses older than seven weeks, or beyond the embryonic stage.

Laci Peterson

It is this law which is being used now to prosecute Scott Peterson with two counts of murder of Laci Peterson, his wife, and their seven month unborn son, Conner.

"If both the woman and the child were killed and we can prove the child was killed due to the actions of the perpetrator, then we charge both," said Stanislaus County Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley as quoted by CourtTv.com. A multiple murder charge against Scott Peterson makes him eligible for the death penalty according to California law.

When is a Fetus Considered Living?

Although many states now have fetal homicide laws, there are a wide variety of differences about when a fetus is considered living. In Missouri and 17 other states, the laws recognize a fetus as living at the time of conception.

Pro-abortion groups see the laws as a way to undermine Roe v. Wade, although currently statues to the laws clearly exclude legal abortions.

Anti-abortionists view it as a way to teach the public about the value of a human life.

Rae Carruth

Former pro football player for the Carolina Panthers, Rae Carruth, was convicted of conspiracy to commit the murder of Cherica Adams, who was seven months pregnant with his child. He was also found guilty of shooting into an occupied vehicle and of using an instrument to kill a fetus.

Adams died of a result of the gunshot wounds but her child, delivered by Caesarean section survived. Rue received close to the maximum sentence of 19 to 24 years in prison.

Unborn Victims of Violence Act

On April 1, 2004, President Bush signed into law the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, also known as "Laci and Conner's Law." The new law states that any "child in utero" is considered to be a legal victim if injured or killed during the commission of a federal crime of violence. The bills definition of "child in utero" is "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."

Although this was a great victory for anti-abortion groups, they are still fighting to change the law in states that have remained inactive on this issue.

"The great majority of violent crimes are governed by state law, not federal law, so it is absolutely necessary for each state to also enact and enforce a comprehensive unborn victims law," explained Mary Spaulding Balch, NRLC state legislative director.

Veronica Jane Thornsbury

Kentucky is one of the latest states to recognize "fetal homicide" as a crime. Since February 2004, Kentucky law recognizes a crime of "fetal homicide" in the first, second, third, and fourth degrees. The law defines an "unborn child," as "a member of the species homo sapiens in utero from conception onward, without regard to age, health, or condition of dependency."

This came after the March 2001 tragedy involving 22-year-old Veronica Jane Thornsbury who was in labor and on her way to the hospital when a driver, under the influence of drugs, Charles Christopher Morris, 29, ran a red light and smashed into Thornsbury car and killed her. The fetus was stillborn.

The drugged driver was prosecuted on for the murder of both the mother and the fetus. However, because her baby was not born, state Court of Appeals overturned a guilty plea in the death of the fetus.

Judge John Miller was quoted as saying, at that time, "We view the born-alive rule as providing a cogent and well-defined legal criterion which has existed as common law in this commonwealth for more than half a century."

"I just don't think it's fair that people can sit up in their high place and decide she's not a baby," Teena Justice said as quoted by the Lexington Herald. "I saw my daughter's first child during an ultrasound when she was 7 months pregnant and he was sucking his thumb. How was something that's not a something sucking its thumb?"

Currently, 30 states recognize the unlawful killing of an unborn child as homicide in at least some circumstances.

Sources: CourtTV.com and National Right to Life Organization

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