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Just what does Webster mean?

Just What Does Webster Mean?

In drafting the abortion law recently considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services the Missouri state legislature may have wrought more than it realized. Although the statute's preamble asserting that life begins at conception was determined not to be operative (for purposes of constitutional review), Missouri courts are being challenged to determine its scope. In a lawsuit brought against the state Lovetta Farrell, currently serving a prison sentence on theft and forgery convictions, contends that the fetus she carries is being illegally imprisoned (Unnamed, unknown fetus of Farrar v. John Ashcroft et al.). Ms. Farrar's attorney argues that if the Missouri law grants personhood, and thus full constitutional rights and immunities, to fetuses, the Farrar fetus's due process protections have been violated. Anti-abortion lobbyist Samuel Lee, who helped draft the statute, doesn't believe the illegal incarceration argument is valid, but noted that "if the courts were to accept that, you could have all sorts of possibilities....A bartender could be charged with serving to minors by serving a pregnant woman a beer, or a pregnant woman who didn't wear two seat belts in a car could be charged with violating state law by not having her child in a seat belt seat" (American Medical News, 18 August 1989, 12).

And should age be reckoned from conception or birth? The matter raises a host of questions regarding the privileges and entitlements linked to age. Under Missouri law a DWI conviction carries automatic license suspension for those under twenty-one, and one Missouri attorney filed a motion arguing that his client, aged twenty years and five months by traditional date-of-birth reckoning at the time of his conviction, was illegally stripped of his driver's license. The motion was rejected, but an appeal has been filed. What about eligibility for Social Security, or being able to drink, vote, enlist in the military, or run for public office? Just how many family members, for census-taking and income tax purposes, are there in households where one or more female members are pregnant with one or more fetuses? (William Saleton, "If Fetuses Are People...," The New Republic, 18 & 25 September 1989, 18-20; Wall Street Journal, 23 October 1989, B7).

How broadly the preamble will be held to apply remains to be seen. But courts have already accepted a "necessity defense" and acquitted pro-life demonstrators charged with trespassing at abortion clinics. The court ruling cited the statute's preamble and held that the trespassing violations were "necessary as emergency measure to avoid the ... death and maiming of unborn children" (Washington Post, 18 August 1989, A14).

Regarding the preamble, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote: "We think that the extent to which the preamble's language might be used to interpret other state statutes or regulations is something that only the courts of Missouri can decide." Now decide they must.
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Title Annotation:Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, Supreme Court abortion case
Author:Crigger, Bette-Jane
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Nursing, ethics, & professional roles.
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