Peterson Guilty: But Once, Not Twice

Article excerpt

The conviction of Scott Peterson on a separate murder charge for killing the fetus carried by his wife, Laci, raises questions about the moral and legal status of fetuses. Many people, the jury included, recognize that killing his wife in late pregnancy was more heinous than killing his wife alone. Yet many are also uncomfortable with granting full legal personhood to a fetus still in the womb.

There are social and legal responses to such crimes that respect both sentiments: An anthropologically informed model of personhood affords appropriate social recognition for the pregnancy loss; while a woman-centered - rather than fetal-centered - legal approach acknowledges and supports society's interest in protecting pregnant women.

One of the most fundamental ways that cultures vary from one another is in their models of what it is, or takes, to be a person. In some cultures, personhood is understood to come into being at a specific moment, while in others, personhood is understood to come about gradually, over a period of time, sometimes occurring over the course of a lifetime and even beyond. Because the US is generally understood to be of the first type, the abortion debate hinges on which moment is the critical one - conception or 24 weeks or birth.

But Americans actually use both models. A pregnant woman sometimes chooses to develop a relationship with an embryo/fetus; other times she does not. If she decides to develop this relationship, she begins the work of constructing a person. This involves things like changing certain personal habits, telling others, seeking medical care, fantasizing what the child will be like and how it will fit into and change the family unit, naming it, shopping for it, preparing a space for it at home and in life.

The process of constructing a person is rarely undertaken alone; relatives, friends, co-workers, healthcare providers, and even strangers who pat tummies and ask when the baby is due or offer unsolicited advice, all engage in this process. Certain medical encounters accelerate the pace - prenatal visits at which one hears or sees a heartbeat or learns the sex typically amplify and accelerate the process of constructing a new person.

Other factors may slow, or even reverse, the process. For example, while waiting for the results of an amniocentesis or during a pregnancy following a miscarriage or stillbirth many women postpone "person-making" practices and limit their relationship with the fetus. There is not a one-to-one relationship between gestational age and development of personhood, but they're certainly linked. The longer a desired pregnancy lasts, the more opportunities there are for acknowledging personhood. …