Can a Fetus Like Laci's Sue?

Mavra Stark, head of the Morris County, N.J., chapter of National Organization for Women, drew criticism last month when she told a local newspaper she was concerned that a double murder charge against Scott Peterson would support arguments by anti-abortion movement. Less than 24 hours later, Stark backed off her comments, saying that she was "thinking out loud."

Diverse Fetal Rights

Fetus protection laws in criminal and civil courts vary from state to state. Some criminal laws apply to fetuses from the beginning of their development while other states protect fetuses only after certain stages of development.

In civil cases, courts have been divided over whether dead fetuses should be regarded as people in wrongful death lawsuits and under what circumstances these lawsuits can be brought.

On Wednesday, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a fetus is a body part, as it upheld the first-degree sexual assault conviction of a man who tried to induce a miscarriage by slipping labor-inducing drugs into his girlfriend's vagina.

Edwin Sandoval argued that he could not be charged with sexual assault because he targeted the fetus, not the mother. The woman later gave birth to a healthy boy.

Though the court held that a fetus was part of a woman's body, Chief Justice William J. Sullivan issued a separate concurring opinion where he held that a fetus might have "its own independent existence."

In 2001, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that a fetus could be considered a person in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by a man whose wife and unborn child died during childbirth procedures in 1995. However, Nebraska recently adopted a law that allows wrongful death suits on behalf of the unborn, but protects doctors and health-care providers from litigation — as long as the death of the fetus was intended, a provision designed to protect abortion providers.

Georgia allows wrongful death suits on behalf of stillborn fetuses who may not have reached viability, as long as the fetus was "quick" — capable of movement inside the womb. In Alabama, a judge last month cleared the way for an unborn child killed in a traffic accident to be a plaintiff in a wrongful death suit filed by her grandparents. Alabama allows for the parents of an unborn child to sue. But in this case, the mother, Jackie Adelle Porter, was killed and the father is unknown.

The American Civil Liberties Union believes parents of stillborn fetuses should be compensated. But it opposes wrongful death cases brought on behalf of the unborn because it could potentially infringe on women's reproductive rights, the group says.

"Recognition of a cause of action [or right to sue] for a fetus could also result in scrutiny of and interference with a pregnant woman's medical choices," the ACLU says in a statement. "Doctors who disapproved of women's decisions to give birth at home or refuse Caesarean sections might feel justified in seeking court orders to compel the women to act according to the doctors' advice."

Possible Unintended Targets

There are other wrinkles that can complicate matters when a fetus, or someone on its behalf, has the right to sue.

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