LANSING, Mich. (BP)–A pregnant woman may use deadly force to defend her fetus against an assault, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled, opening wider a debate about when a fetus becomes a person.
The case stems from an incident in which a woman was attacked by her boyfriend when she was 16 weeks pregnant with quadruplets, according to a New York Times report Oct. 16. The man allegedly punched the woman in the stomach twice before she stabbed him in the chest with a kitchen knife, killing him.
The woman miscarried a few weeks later, was charged with voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five to 20 years in prison. The jury had rejected her plea that she had acted in self-defense.
In October, the appeals court reversed her conviction and ordered a new trial, ruling the trial judge should have allowed her to argue that she was defending not only herself but also “her unborn children,” according to The Times.
“One is left with a most peculiar legal situation,” John C. Mayoue, an Atlanta lawyer who is an expert in the ways the law treats embryos and fetuses, said in The Times. “Although she may use deadly force to protect the viable or nonviable fetus, thereby ending someone’s life, she also has the constitutional right to terminate the pregnancy herself without consequence.”
The case raises important questions given the characterization of miscarriage as murder would also imply abortion as murder. About half the nation’s states have laws making assaults that cause miscarriages or stillbirths criminal.
Michigan law permits the use of deadly force in defense of self and in defense of others, and the appeals court held that the concept of defending others “should also extend to the protection of a fetus, viable or nonviable, from an assault against the mother.”
Even so, the court clarified that it recognized the defense only in the context of assault, thus excluding medical abortions and the destruction of embryos existing outside the body, according to The Times.
Pro-choice activists say the appeals court’s decision was right and it defends the right of the mother to choose whether to keep her pregnancy, according to christianitytoday.com.
“When a woman is carrying a wanted pregnancy and she has made that decision, which is constitutionally protected, she has the right to protect the embryo or fetus,” said Linda Rosenthal, a lawyer for the Center of Reproductive Law and Policy.
Gail Rodwan, lawyer for the woman who was assaulted in the case, noted that the court’s opinion could have far-reaching implications.
“The opinion clearly does recognize the sense that the fetus was another separate from the mother,” she said.
But Rodwan stressed in her brief that abortion rights should not be affected by a ruling in her client’s favor, according to The Times. Abortion providers act under protection of the law, she said, and the boyfriend with his assaultive conduct did not.