Massachusetts Court Reverses Woman’s Murder Conviction in Death of Baby During Labor

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently considered a case where a Milford woman was charged with Murder when she gave birth without medical assistance that resulted in the death of the baby (the baby was later found in the trash).

In its decision, the Court refused to impose a duty upon women that they must seek medical intervention when undergoing unassisted childbirth. The court thereby affirms a person’s protected liberty interest in refusing unwanted medical treatment.

In this case, the Massachusetts woman realized she was pregnant after missing her period and then taking a home pregnancy test. She didn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy and chose not to see a doctor. Approximately 6 months later, the woman believed she was experiencing a miscarriage and her water broke. After 5 minutes, the baby emerged from her body but was blue.

The woman told police she made repeated attempts to scoop out the baby’s mouth and made rescue breaths, but the baby’s color never changed and she did not notice the baby cry or move. After not being able to resuscitate the baby, she disposed of the baby in the trash. The police discovered the baby’s body a few days later.

The Worcester District Attorney’s Office ultimately charged the woman with Murder and, after trial, a jury convicted her. The Supreme Judicial Court however, reversed the conviction and ruled that prosecutor’s failed to prove that the woman’s decision not to seek medical help was the cause of the child’s death. The Court distinguished this case from one where a woman intentionally foregoes medical assistance with the intent to kill her fetus; or where a woman undergoes unassisted childbirth after she was told doing so could jeopardize the baby’s life.

Essentially, the Massachusetts Supreme Court held that someone can be subject to criminal liability if a viable fetus is intentionally killed, but this was not the case. In this case, the Court ruled that there was no evidence that the woman had any intention of killing her own fetus simply because she elected to not have medical treatment.

See court’s full opinion at Commonwealth v. Allissa Pugh.

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