Identifying the Underlying Legal Theory

As discussed above, appellate courts have overwhelmingly rejected efforts to use existing criminal and civil laws intended for other purposes (e.g., to protect children) as the basis for arresting, detaining, or forcing interventions on pregnant women (Fentiman 2006). Given the lack of specific legislative authority, we sought to determine what legal theory was offered. In virtually every case in which we could identify the underlying legal theory, we found it to be the same as that asserted by proponents of personhood measures: namely, that the fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus should be treated as if it were completely legally separate from the pregnant woman herself. Prosecutors, judges, and hospital counsel argued that the legal authority for their actions came directly or indirectly from feticide statutes that treat the unborn as legally separate from pregnant women, state abortion laws that include language similar to personhood measures, and Roe v. Wade, misrepresented as holding that fetuses, after viability, may be treated as separate persons.

Today, thirty-eight states and the federal government have passed feticide or unborn victims of violence acts or amended their murder statutes to include the unborn (National Conference of State Legislators Such laws make it a crime to cause harm to a “child in utero” and recognize everything from a zygote to a fetus as an independent “victim,” with legal rights distinct from the woman who has been harmed. These laws are generally passed in the wake of a violent attack on a pregnant woman and, as in Texas, are described as creating “a wall of protection for pregnant women and their unborn children” (Hupp 2003; emphasis added). These laws, however, have also been used to provide the purported authority for arresting pregnant women themselves.

As cases documented in this study demonstrate, women in California, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Utah who suffered stillbirths or delivered babies who died shortly after birth have been charged directly under state feticide laws. In Utah a feticide law was used as the basis for arresting and charging Melissa Rowland. Rowland gave birth to twins, one of whom was stillborn. Rowland was arrested on charges of criminal homicide, a first-degree felony, based on the claim that she had caused the stillbirth by refusing to have cesarean surgery two weeks earlier. A spokesman for the Salt Lake County district attorney's office explained the homicide charge this way: “The decision came down to whether the dead child--a viable, if unborn, being as defined by Utah law--died as a result of another person's action or failure to take action. That judgment ... is required by Utah's feticide law, which was amended in 2002 to protect the fetus from the moment of conception” (Johnson 2004).

Even when women are not charged directly under feticide laws, such laws are used to support the argument that generally worded murder statutes, child endangerment laws, drug delivery laws, and other laws should be interpreted to permit the arrest and prosecution of pregnant women in relationship to the embryos or fetuses they carry.

Texas's feticide law (SB 319), enacted as the Prenatal Protection Act, was used in precisely this way. As the Austin Chronicle reported, “The bill passed, was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, and took effect on Sept. 1, 2003. A mere three weeks later, 47th District Attorney Rebecca King (prosecuting in Potter and Armstrong counties) penned a letter to ‘All Physicians Practicing in Potter County'--Amarillo--informing them that under SB 319 ‘it is now a legal requirement for anyone to report a pregnant woman who is using or has used illegal narcotics during her pregnancy”’ (Smith 2004).

Rather than refuse this demand from the district attorney, health care providers complied. As a result, more than fifty Potter County women were reported, charged with crimes, and in many cases incarcerated (Thomas 2006). Some of these arrests were challenged. In 2006, a Texas Court of Appeals finally held that the Prenatal Protection Act did not authorize the arrests. In spite of this decision, however, some of the women were incarcerated for years while their cases worked their way through the court system.

Antiabortion statutes that include statements of separate rights for the unborn, similar to those asserted by personhood measures, are also routinely used to justify arrests, detentions, and forced surgeries on women who had no intention of ending a pregnancy. For example, the 1986 Missouri Abortion Act includes a preamble stating that life begins at conception and that “the laws of this state shall be interpreted and construed to acknowledge on behalf of the unborn child at every stage of development, all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this Although the statute contains an explicit provision protecting pregnant women from punishment, Missouri prosecutors have used the law to justify the arrests of scores of pregnant women, including one who admitted to using marijuana once while she was pregnant and another who drank alcohol. An Illinois abortion law stating that “an unborn child is a human being from the time of conception and is, therefore, a legal person for the purposes of the unborn child's right to life” was cited as authority for forcibly restraining, overpowering, and sedating a pregnant woman in order to carry out a blood transfusion she had refused.

In Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court explicitly rejected the claim that fetuses, even after attaining viability, are separate legal persons with rights independent of the pregnant women who carry, nurture, and sustain them. Still, consistent with the goals of personhood measures, prosecutors, hospital attorneys, and judges frequently misrepresent the decision to stand for the opposite meaning (Gallagher 1987). They claim that Roe instead establishes that viable fetuses must be treated as legal persons fully separate from the pregnant woman. This misstatement of Roe's actual holding has been used in numerous cases as authority for depriving pregnant women of their liberty.

A Massachusetts trial-level court relied on this distortion of Roe when it ordered Rebecca Corneau, a thirty-two-year-old white woman, imprisoned so the state could force her to undergo medical examinations over her religious objections. In Pennsylvania a hospital sought a court order to force Amber Marlowe, a twenty-five-year-old white woman, to undergo cesarean surgery. Counsel for the hospital cited Roe for the proposition that “Baby Doe, a full term viable fetus, has certain rights, including the right to have decisions made for it, independent of its parents, regarding its health and The court granted the order, awarding the hospital custody of a fetus before, during, and after delivery and giving the hospital the right to force Marlowe to undergo cesarean surgery without her consent. In Florida Roe was misused as authority for taking Pemberton, the Florida woman discussed above who attempted a VBAC, into police custody and forcing her to undergo cesarean surgery. As a trial-level federal court asserted, “Whatever the scope of Pemberton's personal constitutional rights in this situation, they clearly did not outweigh the interests of the State of Florida in preserving the life of the unborn child .... This is confirmed by Roe v.

In other words, where prosecutors, judges, and other state actors have articulated legal arguments for depriving pregnant women of their liberty, they are the same as those made in support of personhood measures; both rely on the idea that state actors should be empowered to treat fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as completely, legally separate from the pregnant women.