Fetal death charges add fuel to fire

April 25, 2003 

WASHINGTON -- Baby Girl Vogt's death 34 years ago in Northern California led to the state law that permits Scott Peterson to be charged with murdering his unborn son.

Peterson's criminal fate will be decided in the court system. The fetal murder charge itself, though, already is adding to the debate in the court of moral opinion -- between people who see fetuses as human beings and those who do not.

In other words, the abortion controversy.

"It helps bring into focus what the argument is about," Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said of the Peterson case. "And the argument is, do these types of crimes have one victim or two?"

Twenty-six states permit homicide charges in deaths of fetuses. The laws in 14 states cover a fetus at any stage of development. The laws in 12 states, including California, cover only those fetuses that have reached a certain level of development.

California protects a fetus that has passed the "embryonic stage." This is generally pegged at seven or eight weeks.

Laci Peterson 8 months along

Peterson's wife, Laci, was eight months pregnant when she disappeared from her Modesto home just before Christmas. Two bodies -- Peterson's and her son's -- came ashore in San Francisco Bay, and people walking on the eastern shore near Richmond came across the remains early last week. Scott Peterson has pleaded innocent to two counts of murder.

In Congress, legislation backed by nine conservative Republican senators would permit federal homicide or manslaughter charges against someone who kills any fetus while committing another violent federal crime.

"The fact is that it is just plain wrong that our federal government does absolutely nothing to criminalize violent acts against unborn children," Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said on introducing the bill.

In 2001, the House of Representatives approved similar legislation on a 252-172 vote, but the issue has become so entangled in the larger abortion rights debate that political prospects remain unclear.

"This bill is being sold as an effort to deter violence against women, but it ignores the pregnant woman. It is nothing more than a poorly disguised attempt to elevate fetal rights," Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, declared after the 2001 House vote. "This is a fundamental challenge to a woman's right to abortion."

In California, Baby Girl Vogt died in February 1969, stillborn at a Stockton hospital, after an attack on her eight-month-pregnant mother, Teresa Keeler, a divorcee from Stockton.

Her ex-husband, Robert Harrison Keeler, encountered her on a mountain road in Amador County and became enraged upon discovering her pregnancy.

"He said, 'You sure are (pregnant). I'm going to stomp it out of you,'" the California Supreme Court subsequently reported. "He pushed her against the car, shoved his knee into her abdomen, and struck her in the face with several blows."

Physicians testified that they were reasonably certain that the fetus had developed to the point of viability, and Keeler's ex- husband was charged with murder.

Meaning of statute crucial

But as Associate Justice Stanley Mosk noted in the Supreme Court opinion, the defendant could be found guilty of murder only if the fetus was "a human being within the meaning of the statute."

Mosk further stated that the California lawmakers who wrote the state's first statute against murder, in 1850, did not intend to protect a fetus. The early California lawmakers, in turn, followed historical precedent as researched by Mosk.

He cited 17th-century English legal scholar Lord Coke, who wrote: "If a woman be quick with childe (and) if a man beat her, whereby the childe dyeth in her body, and she is delivered of a dead childe, this is a great misprision (i.e., misdemeanor), and no murder, but if the childe be born alive and dyeth of the potion, battery or other cause, this is murder."

In response, angry California legislators that same year updated the state law to cover the killing of a fetus.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at (202) 383-0006 or mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com.

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