Legal Status of the Fetus

  • Margery W. Shaw
  • Catherine Damme


When does life begin? There are two moments in time — the moment of conception and the moment of birth — which have most often been used to mark the existence of a new human being. The moment of birth is easily ascertainable and has often been cited by the courts to define the entry into human society of a “person” within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. It is a convenient landmark, but it is not universally accepted in the social or legal sense.


Legal Status Judicial Decision Unborn Child Lower Court United States Supreme 
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    Jorgensenv. Meade-Johnson Lab. Inc., 483 F. 2d 237 (10th Cir. 1973 ). This holding, which recognizes a cause of action for damage to the sperm or egg resulting in an injury to the infant could have far-reaching consequences. A library search for a case of radiation to the gonads prior to conception, resulting in a genetically-defective baby, was unproductive. But as physical and chemical mutagens in the environment increase (e. g., industrial hazards, drugs, food additives, and air pollutants) the possibility of suits for preconception injury becomes more likely.Google Scholar
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    Babbitzv. McCann, 310 F. Supp. 293 (E.D. Wis., 1970). In Rosenv. La. State Board of Med. Examiners, 380 F. Supp. 1217 (E.D. La. 1970 ). The court came to the opposite conclusion, announcing that embryonic and fetal life may be protected by the state from destruction by another. In protecting the right of the fetus to survive, on the basis of equality with human beings generally, the state is not violating the Fourteenth Amendment rights of the mother.Google Scholar
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    Roev. Made, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Footnote 54, at page 157 sets forth the difficulty of applying Fourteenth Amendment rights to the non-viable fetus: When Texas argues that a fetus is entitled to Fourteenth Amendment protection as a person, it faces a dilemma. Neither in Texas nor in any other State are all abortions prohibited. Despite broad proscription, an exception always exists. (Saving the mother’s life is a typical exception). But if a fetus is a person who is not to be deprived of life without due process of law, and if the mother’s condition is the sole determinant, does not the Texas exception appear to be out of line with the Amendment’s command? “There are other inconsistencies between Fourteenth Amendment status and the typical abortion statute. It has already been pointed out, in 49 supra that in Texas the woman is not a principal or an accomplice with respect to an abortion upon her. If a fetus is a person, why is the woman not a principal or accomplice? Further, the penalty for criminal abortion (in Texas and in most states) is significantly less than the maximum penalty for murder…If the fetus is a person, may the penalties be different?”Google Scholar
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    Houston Post, § A, p. 12, Col. 2 (Feb. 1, 1975 ). A U.S. District Court judge in California ordered the Department of Agriculture to give a pregnant woman extra food stamps to feed her unborn child after her attorneys argued she needed better nutrition.Google Scholar
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    In the last two years six federal courts of appeals and 18 federal district courts have considered the question of whether the fetus is a “dependent child” under 42 U.S.C. 606(a), thus entitling the pregnant woman to AFDC benefits. Most of the lower court decisions have leaned heavily in favor of eligibility. See Keller v. Mixon, 372 F. Supp. 51, 371 F. Supp. 1379, 42 U.S.L. Week 2492 (U.S. Mar. 26, 1974); 1 Fam. L. Rep. 2034 (Nov. 12, 1974); Lukhard v. Doe, 493 F. 2d 54, 1 Fam. L. Rep. 2035 (Nov. 12, 1974); Hooker v. Carver, 43 U.S.L. Week 2057 (U.S. Aug. 13, 1974); 1 Fam. L. Rep. 2036 (Nov. 12, 1974); Brian v. California Welfare Rights Organization, 11 Cal. 3d 237, 520 P. 2d 970, 1 Fam. L. Rep. 2036 (Nov. 12, 1974), 1 Fam. L. Rep. 2053 (Nov. 19, 1974); Parks v. Harden, 1 Fam. L. Rep. 2116 (Dec. 17, 1974.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1976

Authors and Affiliations

  • Margery W. Shaw
    • 1
  • Catherine Damme
    • 1
  1. 1.Medical Genetics CenterThe University of Texas Health Science CenterHoustonUSA

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