JEFFERSON CITY _ From the moment of conception, a fetus is a legal "person" for whom a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed, according to a decision handed down by the Missouri Supreme Court Tuesday (April 25).
In a 4-3 split decision, the state high court upheld the right of an unmarried father to sue for the auto-accident death of his unborn fetus.
Jason O'Connor's unborn child was killed in a car accident in August 1990, according to the decision. The woman carrying the fetus, Vicki Richards, also was killed when the car she was riding in was hit by a tractor trailer. She was about four months pregnant.
O'Connor sought damages from the death for his unborn child under a state law that allows a civil damage suit for the death of a relative.
In its decision, the Missouri Supreme Court held that O'Connor could file suit for damages under the state's wrongful death law.
The court based its decision on state law that says that life begins at the moment of conception.
The majority opinion that law represents a clear decision by the state legislature that all laws should consider a fetus, even if non-viable, as a legal "person."
"We must be more sensitive to legislative direction and less sensitive to our own evaluation of policy considerations," the court wrote.
The statute, court wrote, "does set out a cannon of interpretation enacted by the general assembly directing that the time of conception and not viability is the determinative point at which the legally protectable rights, privileges, and immunities of an unborn child should be deemed to arise."
Neither the majority opinion nor the dissenting opinion of Chief Justice Ann Covington made any reference to abortion nor to U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have prevented government from prohibiting a woman from obtaining an abortion of her non-viable fetus.
Both anti-abortion and abortion-rights advocates say the court's decision does not involve abortion.
"It has nothing to do with abortion," said Crystal Williams, the lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, a family planning clinic and abortion provider.
Samuel Lee, pro-life lobbyist, said the decision will not have a direct effect on the abortion debate, but may impact the future.
"This decision shows how schizophrenic the law is," he said.