Can a Fetus Like Laci's Sue?

The unborn son of Laci Peterson would not be recognized as a human being in a wrongful death lawsuit against the killer, but his family wants to give his unrealized life meaning by making him a pioneer for other unborn victims of violence.

On Wednesday, Laci's family, the Rochas, joined the National Right to Life Committee and other groups in their push to have Congress pass the federal "Unborn Victims of Violence Act." They want the measure named "Laci and Conner's Law" in their memory.

"As the family of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, this bill is very close to our hearts," the Rochas said in a letter written to the Republican sponsors of the bill, Rep. Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania and Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio. "We have not only lost our future with our daughter and sister, but with our grandson and nephew as well."

The proposed law would make harming a pregnant woman and a fetus in any stage of development during the commission of a crime a federal offense, even if the alleged attacker or the woman had no prior knowledge of the pregnancy.

The Rochas' championing of the measure raises its profile, much the way the father of abducted teen Elizabeth Smart propelled Amber Alert legislation into the spotlight with an impassioned plea for its passage. It also puts the Peterson case squarely in the middle of the contentious debate between abortion rights and abortion opposition groups over the issue fetal rights.

From ‘Unborn’ to ‘Born’

The federal measure, which twice passed the House but failed in the Senate, would not likely affect Scott Peterson, who is charged under state law with capital murder for allegedly killing Laci and their unborn child. But the same issue is a matter of debate in California, as it is in many other states. The state is one of 26 that have criminal feticide laws, but it is not among the 39 states that allow relatives of the unborn to file wrongful death lawsuits on their behalf.

In order to file a lawsuit on Conner's behalf, the Rochas would have to prove he was not "unborn" but born alive — and then died as a result of his father's actions.

"California is one of those states where you cannot sue for prenatal death. You would have to prove the child was born, breathed and then died," said Walter Weber, senior litigation counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a public interest law firm that opposes abortion.

"In a perverse way, the law kind of rewards the person who commits the more devastating attack," he said. "If he does a really efficient job and the child dies before the mother can give birth, he won't be held responsible in a civil court. But if the child is born and breathes and then dies, he can be sued."

Investigators and prosecutors have not revealed what evidence they have gathered, and have not determined a cause of death for both Laci and the child.

Laci was nearly eight months pregnant when she disappeared. She was missing for nearly four months until the fetus and her remains washed up along a San Francisco Bay-area beach on separate days last month. A wrongful death lawsuit filed on Conner's behalf would depend on the forensic evidence. The fact that the bodies washed up along the shore separately could help the case.

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