Woman Charged With Manslaughter After Assault Victim's Unborn Fetus Dies

Case in Massachusetts highlights issue of 'fetal homicide.'

July 12, 2010 -- A Massachusetts woman was charged with manslaughter and aggravated assault and battery today for allegedly assaulting a woman who was six months pregnant, and causing the death of her unborn fetus.

Ayanna Woodhouse, 25, of Wellesley, Massachusetts was arraigned in Suffolk County Superior Court this morning for the alleged April 10 assault. She pleaded not guilty. Suffolk Assistant Clerk Magistrate Connie Wong set bail at $20,000 and told Woodhouse to stay away from the mother if she posts bail. Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Leora Joseph had asked for bail to be set at $25,000.

"This is a serious charge," Joseph said in a statement. "The penalties are severe."

The maximum sentence for manslaughter in Massachusetts is 20 years in prison.

Joseph described the incident to the court in detail, according to a press release from the district attorney's office. She said the women knew each other before the incident because Woodhouse's cousin was the child's father, but they had arrived at the nail salon separately. The women began to chat, and soon their conversation turned confrontational.

"They had some prior conflict that manifested itself in the nail salon," Jake Wark, press secretary for the Suffolk County district attorney, told ABCNews.com.

Salon patrons shouted at Woodhouse to stop as she allegedly punched the pregnant woman in the face, and then kicked and punched her as she fell to the floor and tried to defend herself. Both women left the salon after the alleged assault and the victim tried to follow Woodhouse to her home. Boston Police responded but could not immediately locate Woodhouse.

Later, the 26-year-old mother was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where doctors monitored the mother and child. At first, the baby appeared stable, but after a few hours doctors could no longer detect a fetal heartbeat, so they performed an emergency Caesarian section. The baby girl was stillborn and pronounced dead in the early hours of April 11.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined the official cause of death was placental abruption due to maternal trauma. Placental abruption means the placenta is detached from the uterus.

Woman Charged With Attacking Another Woman, Killing Her Unborn Baby

Massachusetts does not have an official fetal homicide law, unlike many other states, but case law has established a precedent that allows for prosecution. According to the district attorney's office, "A homicide charge may be brought in the death of an unborn baby if the fetus was medically viable at the time of the trauma that ended its life."

The D.A. said medical experts determined in the course of the investigation that the fetus was medically viable, which allowed for the manslaughter charge.

Fetal homicide laws have been the subject of much debate because they revolve around when a fetus becomes viable. 38 states have fetal homicide laws, but they vary greatly from state to state.

In 2004, President Bush signed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act into law, which recognizes a "child in utero" as a legal victim if killed in any one of over 60 violent crimes. Since federal criminal law does not apply to cases that states prosecute, the law does not affect cases at the state level, such as the one in Massachusetts.