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Criminal liability of physicians: an encroachment on the abortion right?



Criminal liability of physicians: an encroachment on the abortion right?



American Criminal Law Review 18(4): 591-615



The Supreme Court in 1973 in Roe v. Wade established that decision of first trimester abortion is left to the physician, exercising his best medical judgment, in consultation with the patient. During this period the state may not regulate abortion determination since there is no compelling state interest; therefore a physician performing abortion will be precluded from civil or criminal liability. In second trimester abortion the state has a compelling interest in the health of the mother and may regulate the procedure to protect maternal health; although a previable fetus may be able to survive the abortion, Roe v. Danforth definitively places the woman's right to an abortion above the life of the fetus during the previable stage; therefore the state cannot seek to safeguard the life or health of the fetus during the abortion. Third trimester abortion implies a viable fetus; thus, a compelling state interest in the potential life arises and the state may regulate and proscribe abortion except when necessary for the life and health of the mother. The determination of when viability has been achieved is a matter of judgment resting with the physician who has the choice of techniques and operating procedures which may or may not be fatal to the unborn. It is a question of either termination of pregnancy or destruction of the fetus. In this last case the legal responsibility placed upon the physician is very serious, and involving a risk of civil and criminal liability. Uncertainties as to the boundaries of legal abortion and the threat of criminal liability can only result in a reluctance among physicians to perform second and third trimester abortions, which is against the fundamental right to abortion guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court will have to elaborate upon the scope of the abortion right, whether it encompasses fetal destruction or only termination of pregnancy, because it directly affects the extent and quality of maternal and fetal care that must be rendered by a physician. If only termination of pregnancy is included the Court must resolve whether the woman's health interests predominate, or whether the physician can be required to enhance fetal survival. Physicians have a right to know the full extent of legal ramifications and implications of legally induced abortion.

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