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When does personhood begin?

State and federal laws in the U.S. covering
"fetal homicide" or "unborn victim" crimes

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Overview of "fetal homicide" laws:

These laws criminalize injury or death to an embryo or fetus as a result of violence. They provide that when a pregnant woman is attacked or killed, there are two victims: the woman and the embryo or fetus. These laws usually contain clauses that specifically exclude consideration of:

bullet Abortion procedures,

bullet Medical treatment, such as the removal of a uterine cancer or termination of a ectopic pregnancy. The latter refers to the implantation by the embryo outside the uterus, often in a fallopian tube. Both procedures kill the embryo or fetus as an unintended side-effect, or

bullet Any action by the mother herself.

These laws generally define a fertilized ovum, an embryo, and a fetus as a full human person at any stage of development.

bullet Some define the range of the legislation as extending from conception to live birth.

bullet Others define it as beginning when pregnancy begins and extending until birth. The medical definition of the start of pregnancy is about ten days after conception when the pre-embryo becomes implanted in the lining of the woman's uterus.

The difference between conception and implantation is not particularly meaningful in this case because the presence of a pre-embryo -- sometimes popularly called a "just-fertilized ovum" -- cannot normally be detected until after it becomes implanted. However, defining personhood as starting at conception has profound importance to many pro-life supporters, particularly in reference to emergency contraception and stem cell research.

The term "fetal homicide law" is not particularly accurate, because many of these laws protect embryos as well as fetuses. Some pro-choice supporters object to the term "unborn victim law" because they don't regard an embryo or fetus in an early stage of development as having attained personhood. Thus, they feel that at least some embryos and fetuses cannot be a victim.

These laws have been opposed by many pro-choice groups and individuals because they view them as an attempt to define pre-embryos, embryos, and fetuses as full human persons, either from conception or from the start of pregnancy. They view such laws as the next step in a battle to totally eliminate elective abortion, and replace free access to early abortions with compulsory childbirth for almost all pregnant women. They prefer an alternative approach: to give an enhanced punishment to any person who attacks a pregnant woman, but to consider the woman alone to be the victim.

These laws have been supported by many pro-life groups and individuals who believe that human personhood begins at conception. Thus when a pregnant woman is killed, the perpetrators is viewed as having actually committing two acts of murder: the killing of both the woman and the embryo or fetus that she is carrying. Since they feel that both the woman and the embryo/fetus have equal human rights, they regard such assaults as double-homicides. In some states, convicting a perpetrator of having committed multiple murders make them eligible for the death penalty whereas a single murder would take execution off the table.

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State "fetal homicide" laws:

According to National Right to Life, as of 2011-MAY-27, 36 states have "... unborn victim (fetal homicide) laws. 1 27 states have laws that recognize pre-embryos, embryos, and fetuses as victims -- that is from conception to birth. Another 9 recognize them as victims during part of this interval. 2

As of 2011-MAY-27, the following states have some form of fetal homicide or unborn victim laws:

bullet27 states cover the interval from conception to birth:
State Term Possible criminal charges
Alabama Unborn child Manslaughter, murder criminally negligent homicide, assault
Alaska Unborn child Manslaughter, murder criminally negligent homicide, assault
Arizona Unborn child Manslaughter, murder
Georgia Unborn child Feticide, voluntary manslaughter, assault, battery, feticide by vehicle
Idaho Human embryo or fetus Homicide, manslaughter, battery
Illinois Unborn child Homicide or manslaughter (various types)
Kansas Unborn child Murder, manslaughter, vehicular homicide, battery
Kentucky Unborn child Fetal homicide (4 degrees)
Louisiana Unborn child Feticide (3 degrees)
Michigan Embryo or fetus Manslaughter
Minnesota Unborn child Murder or manslaughter (various degrees)
Mississippi Unborn child Homicide, other violent crimes, serious physical injury
Missouri Unborn child First degree murder or Involuntary manslaughter
Nebraska Unborn child Murder (2 degrees), manslaughter, injury or assault on unborn child
North Carolina Unborn child Murder, manslaughter, serious bodily, battery of an unborn child
North Dakota Unborn child Murder, felony murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide
Ohio Unborn member Murder, manslaughter, homicide, vehicular homicide
Oklahoma Unborn child Murder, manslaughter, other acts of violence
Pennsylvania Unborn child, fetus Various degrees of manslaughter or manslaughter
South Carolina Child in utero Various
South Dakota Unborn child Fetal homicide, manslaughter, or vehicular homicide
Tennessee Fetus  ** Murder, manslaughter, vehicular homicide.
Texas Unborn child Same as for a child or adult
Utah Unborn child Separate law
Virginia Fetus  ** Separate law
West Virginia Embryo or fetus Murder, manslaughter, other crimes of violence
Wisconsin Unborn Child Homicide (various types)

bulletNine others cover the interval from some point in pregnancy until birth:
State Term Start of interval Possible criminal charges
Arkansas Unborn child 12 weeks gestation Murder, manslaughter, homicide
California Fetus 7 to 8 weeks Murder
Florida 1) Unborn quick child
2) Unborn child
1) At quickening?
2) At viability
1)Felony of the second degree
2) Vehicular homicide
Indiana Fetus At viability Murder or manslaughter
Maryland Fetus At viability Murder or manslaughter
Mass. Unborn child At viability Involuntary manslaughter
Nevada Unborn quick child At quickening? Manslaughter

Rhode Island

Unborn quick child At viability Manslaughter
Washington Unborn quick child At quickening? Manslaughter

 * Another New York law conflicts with this. It defines a "person" who is the victim of a homicide as a "human being who has been born and is alive," -- presumably at the time of the offence.

 ** The Tennessee and Virginia laws appear to be ambiguous. The intent of the lawmakers appears to be to protect all pre-embryos, embryos, and fetuses; but the term used in the statute is "fetus."

The above information was extracted from the National Right to Life web site. 2 They last updated their list on 2011-MAY-27. If your interest is more than casual, we recommend that you view that site and track down the applicable state law.

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Federal "fetal homicide" law:


bullet Each year, from 1999 to 2002, an Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA) passed the House with a substantial majority, but was defeated in the Senate.

bullet In 2003, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (a.k.a. as "Laci and Connerís Law") was re-introduced to Congress. Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) sponsored bill S. 1019 in the Senate. Congresswoman Melissa Hart (R-PA) sponsored bill H.R. 1997 in the House.

bullet On 2004-FEB-26, the House passed H.R. 1997 by a vote of 254 to 163. The bill's principal supporters were the main House and Senate ; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN.); Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-KY); Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-PA); House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX); and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO). The bill defines an "unborn child" as a "member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb." This would cover a pre-embryo, embryo and fetus from about 10 days after conception -- when it has entered the womb -- until birth. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) had proposed an alternative bill that would have increased penalties for criminals attacking pregnant women but would continue to consider the crime as having been perpetrated on one victim -- the woman. It was defeated 229 to 186.

bullet James Sensenbrenner, House Judiciary Committee Chairman , (R-WI) said: "Criminal law is an expression of society's values. Anything less than making a woman and the unborn child separate victims "does not resonate with society's sense of justice."

bullet Representative Jerrold Nadler, (D-NY) said: "Real people are suffering real harm while this House has played abortion politics instead of acting to punish truly barbaric crimes."

bullet Representative Louise Slaughter, (D-NY) said: "is not about women and it is not about children. It's about politics." 3,4

bullet In the Senate, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) offered an amendment which would add provisions to the bill dealing with domestic violence programs and other issues. It failed 46 to 53.

bullet A second amendment was offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) which would have created a new federal crime of "interruption of the normal course of a pregnancy." It would have severe penalties but would define only the pregnant woman to be the victim. It was defeated by the narrowest possible vote of 50 to 49. Senator Kerry, who was campaigning for the presidency, interrupted his campaign to return to Washington to vote in favor of the Feinstein amendment and against the bill.

bullet The Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004 was enrolled on 2004-APR-01 by a vote of 61 to 38. 5 It is also called the. "Laci and Conner's Law."

bullet President Bush signed the bill into law on 2004-APR-6.

Scope of the law:

State laws described above, apply to crimes anywhere within the state. However, the federal legislation only applies to certain federal and military crimes:

It applies to crimes committed:

bullet On federal lands,
bullet On Native reservations,
bullet In the military,
bullet In post offices and other federal buildings

It also applies to certain crimes (interstate stalking, kidnapping, certain drug offenses, bombings, and many others) anywhere in the U.S. 5

The law does not require proof that:

  1. "the person engaging in the conduct had knowledge or should have had knowledge that the victim of the underlying offense was pregnant; or"
  2. "the defendant intended to cause the death of, or bodily injury to, the unborn child."

Thus, the perpetrator could be sentenced for the injury or death to the embryo or fetus, even if he was unaware of the pregnancy, the woman was unaware of her pregnancy, and even if the pregnancy could not be detected by medical testing at the time.

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  1. "State Homicide Laws That Recognize Unborn Victims," National Right to Life Committee, at:
  2. "State Homicide Laws That Recognize Unborn Victims (Fetal Homicide)," National Right to Life Committee, at:
  3. "U.S. House Passes Bill to Recognize Unborn Child as Second Victim of Violent Crimes, 254-163;
    Sharon Rocha Rebukes Senate Democrats for Obstruction
    ," National Right to Life Committee, 2004-FEB-26, at:
  4. "House passes bill to protect fetuses,", 2004-FEB -26, at:
  5. "President Bush Signs Unborn Victims of Violence Act Into Law, After Dramatic One-vote Win in Senate," 2004-APR-06, at:

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Copyright © 2000 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-FEB-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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