Cal  Thomas

The arrest of Scott Peterson by Modesto, Calif., police on charges that he murdered his wife, Laci, and their "unborn child" presents some interesting legal questions beyond his guilt or innocence.

Prosecutors say Peterson is being charged with double murder so they can seek the death penalty. The California Penal Code lists "special circumstances" murders, defining that to include the murder of more than one person by the same individual. The definition of "murder" is "the crime of unlawfully killing a person" (Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary). Definitions will be important in this case.

No one would deny that Laci Peterson was a person under the law. But what about the unborn child/baby/fetus/product of conception she was carrying? In order to make the "special circumstances" part of the law stick and allow the state to seek the death penalty under its provision, that entity Laci Peterson was carrying would have to be deemed a "person" under the same legal definition that applies to her.

It is here that the dictionary and the law part company. The dictionary defines a "person" as "a human being; individual." But the Supreme Court has rewritten that to assign personhood (and thus the law's protection) only after the redefined baby is born and takes its first breath. There are some who wish to withhold personhood until the child can be given certain tests to make sure it "measures up" and has the potential for contributing to, not taking from, society. But that will come later, after the proper social conditioning has been achieved.

Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant when she disappeared last Christmas. Nearly all babies can survive outside the womb at that point in their development. The last few weeks before birth allow the baby to increase in size. Police say when she and the baby were found, the baby (already named Connor) was apart from his mother, though the umbilical cord was still attached to him. By some legal definitions, Connor should then be considered a person because he was outside the womb, or at least "viable." By others, he might have been required to take a breath before the law would protect him.

In reporting Scott Peterson's arrest last Saturday, the Associated Press found itself in a rhetorical conundrum. At first it used the generic word "bodies" to refer to Laci Peterson and the child. Then it referred to "infant son" and later "fetus" and "biological child" and, still later in the story, "the couple's baby."

Cal Thomas

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Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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