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Sometimes the rough edges of life cut so deep we are compelled to do something, nay, anything to ease the pain. Murder inspires such a reaction. The murder of a pregnant woman crushes our spirits. But let’s not lose sight of something fundamental: Bad law often rises from the ashes of tragic facts. Connecticut State Rep. T. R. Rowe is blinded with rage just now. The Trumbull Republican wants to change the law so that a person who kills a pregnant woman can be charged with double homicide. If the law declares a fetus to be a person, well, Rowe reasons, life would be far simpler. What caught the lawmaker’s attention is a heart-breaking murder in Plainfield, Conn. A 23-year-old woman named Jenny McMechen was gunned down by her boyfriend not long ago. She was carrying a 36-week-old fetus at the time of her death. The state elected to charge only one murder, not two. One needn’t have much biological sophistication to recognize and accept that all of the genetic material necessary to produce a human being is present at the moment of conception. No soul gets added in at, let’s say, 10 weeks, and the concept of “quickening” adds little but mystification to the science of life. But to call all fetuses persons makes about as much sense as calling a corpse a person; genetics may be destiny, but are we not such stuff as dreams are made of? Life may well begin at the moment of conception, but does personhood? Among the things that distinguish human beings from other animals are speech, culture, a refined capacity to reflect upon oneself and others, and the broad range of emotions that sweep us through our days. So far as we know, we differ not just in kind, but degree, from other mammals. Assertions such as these inspire some to say the art of line-drawing is so complex that we are best to forswear any effort to distinguish between those possessed of the attributes of personhood, and those without. History shows the wisdom of that objection. Oliver Wendell Holmes favored eugenics; so, too, in an even more grotesque way, did Hitler. But the law depends upon distinctions to make our lives manageable. Law is not, after all, biology. Cells may live without being a human life. And a fetus may be viable and capable of life outside the womb without therefore being a person. Politicizing the womb is dangerous business. Declaring a fetus to be a person for purposes of criminal law will yield bizarre results. A pregnant woman is slapped: how many assaults? A woman with child smokes a cigarette: risk of injury to a minor? Shall we appoint a legal guardian for the fetus when its interest conflicts with that of its mother? A sensible rule reserves the attributes of persons for those not just capable of viability, but who are, in fact, full inhabitants of the world we all share. A fetus is a person awaiting birth; it should have no independent standing. There are other ways of coping with the outrage of murdering a pregnant woman: Sentencing enhancements are used in all sorts of cases. Why not in this one, too? Making mandatory a certain period of incarceration for those who knowingly assault a woman bearing a child could express the need for retribution without making a mockery of reason. Let’s hope calmer heads than Rowe’s prevail in Hartford. The law is already cluttered enough with antediluvian distractions. Norm Pattis is a name partner at New Haven, Conn.’s Williams and Pattis.

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