Women do not open themselves to criminal charges by giving birth without medical assistance, the highest court in Massachusetts said Friday as it ruled in the case of a Milford woman who gave birth to a nearly full-term baby whose body was later found in the trash.
The Supreme Judicial Court said the state has adequate criminal laws prohibiting murder, most late-term abortions, and the neglect and abuse of children to protect viable fetuses and living children "without the need to subject all women undergoing unassisted childbirth to possible criminal liability."
"Imposing a broad and ill-defined duty on all women to summon medical intervention during childbirth would trench on their `protected liberty interest in refusing medical treatment,"' Justice Barbara Lenk wrote for the court in the unanimous opinion.
The ruling reversed the involuntary manslaughter conviction of Allissa Pugh. Because prosecutors had not proved that her baby was born alive or that calling for medical help would have saved his life, they lacked evidence that Pugh's failure to call for help was the cause of the baby's death, the judge's ruled.
The infant's body was found in January 2007 as haulers were collecting trash in Pugh's neighborhood.
Pugh told police she believed she was only three months pregnant and possibly having a miscarriage when she gave birth at home. She said that after her water broke, she felt the baby's foot first, realized it was in a breech position and thought she should hasten the baby's birth. She said she pushed about 10 times and pulled on baby to speed up the delivery. The infant was delivered a few minutes later, but was blue and unresponsive, she said. She later put the baby's body in the trash.
A lower court judge found that prosecutors had not proven that the baby was alive at birth but found that she recklessly injured the infant by trying to speed the delivery.
The SJC found that prosecutors didn't prove that Pug's decision not to seek medical assistance caused the baby's death. The court also said it was not an intentional killing.
The SJC said the judge found correctly that criminal liability can be imposed on someone who intentionally kills a viable fetus. But the high court said Pugh's case was not one in which a woman forgoes medical treatment during childbirth with the intention of killing her fetus or a case of a woman who undergoes unassisted childbirth after being told that doing so would severely imperil the baby's life.
"Instead, we are presented with the situation of a woman undergoing unassisted childbirth who had no reason to suspect complications at its outset," Lenk wrote. "There is no affirmative duty in such circumstances to summon - and implicitly, to accept - medical assistance, even where the failure to do so might result in unintentional harm to a fetus."
Pugh's lawyer, Peter Ettenberg, said Pugh believed she was only a few months along in her pregnancy and thought she was having a miscarriage when she went into labor. She had only gained 15 pounds, he said.
Ettenberg said the ruling recognizes that many women give birth outside hospital settings and that a broad law making those women subject to criminal prosecution would be unfair.
"If you are in a circumstance where you are giving birth unattended, you could open yourself up to selective prosecution. One police department or one government agency could choose to bring charges and another might not," he said. "I think the court is trying to protect a wide range of individuals who might be in a situation similar to the one Allissa found herself in."
A spokesman for Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr., whose office prosecuted the case, said prosecutors were reviewing the court ruling.
This program aired on June 15, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.