By Joe Danielewicz
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Reuters) - A Maryland prosecutor on Tuesday dropped murder charges against two doctors accused of performing late-term abortions on fetuses that could have lived outside the womb, in a case that drew national attention as a test of fetal homicide law.
In December, 2011, Cecil County, Maryland State's Attorney Ellis Rollins brought murder charges against Drs. Nicola Riley and Steven Brigham.
But on Tuesday Rollins said a medical expert who had originally offered his opinion that the fetus would have been viable if it had been born, had retracted his opinion under pressure from colleagues.
The case was the first time Maryland's fetal homicide law was applied to doctors, who are provided with an exception.
Riley and Brigham were charged with multiple counts of first- and second-degree murder as well as conspiracy to commit murder because prosecutors argued the abortions were performed on fetuses that could have "viably lived" if they had been born at that time.
The charges stemmed from an abortion the doctors performed in August 2010 on a young woman, nearly six months pregnant, who suffered complications and had to be hospitalized.
She sought the abortion at Brigham's clinic in New Jersey, where she received preliminary injections. She then drove to the clinic in Maryland, where Riley performed the abortion procedure with Brigham present.
Groups both for the right to abortion and against it were watching the case as a test of a state law tied to the "viability" of an unborn fetus.
Under Maryland law, people can be charged with murder if they "intend to cause the death of the viable fetus."
The law defines a fetus as "viable" if "there is a reasonable likelihood of the fetus' sustained survival outside the womb." It provides exceptions for licensed doctors.
The case in Maryland illustrates "an environment where people think that it's okay to target abortion providers," said Janet Crepps, deputy director for the legal department at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
"It's just indicative of the fact that in some states in some ways, and generally in the country, we've gotten to a toxic environment" regarding abortion, she said.
Abortion opponent Carol Tobias said the murder charges filed last December in the case had come as "a nice surprise."
"If there were babies found past the stage where state law says are allowed ... the state needs to investigating these cases," said Tobias, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Right to Life Committee.
Prosecutor Rollins said that abortion was not the issue.
"This has nothing to do whether you personally believe it or you don't believe in it. This is a question of whether or not Maryland law was violated, period," Rollins said.
The investigation remains open, he said.
(Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)