The Supreme Judicial Court Friday threw out the involuntary manslaughter conviction of a Milford woman whose child died during the birth that she undertook without medical assistance.
In a unanimous ruling, the SJC said it was not going to criminalize childbirths that take place when the mother chooses to forgo medical help.
“Existing criminal laws proscribing murder, most late-term abortions, and the neglect and abuse of children appropriately protect the State’s interests in safeguarding viable fetuses and living children without the need to subject all women undergoing unassisted childbirth to possible criminal liability,’’ Justice Barbara Lenk wrote for the court.
“Imposing a broad and ill-defined duty on all women to summon medical intervention during childbirth would trench on their ‘protected liberty interest in refusing unwanted medical treatment,’ ” Lenk wrote, quoting from a previous court case.
She added, “Moreover, such a duty is inchoate and would be highly susceptible to selective enforcement.”
The case stems from a decision by Allissa Pugh to handle the birth of a child she delivered while on the toilet of her Milford home on Jan. 2, 2007. According to the SJC, Pugh knew she was pregnant, but did not disclose it to anyone in her family.
On that date, Pugh thought she suffered a miscarriage, but instead her water broke, the SJC said. While on the toilet, Pugh realized that the fetus was in a breech position and “pushed approximately 10 times and pulled on the baby’s feet, legs, and body to hasten the delivery.’’
Five minutes later, the baby was delivered, but was blue and unresponsive. She disposed of the remains in the trash, which were later discovered, triggering a criminal investigation.
In the ruling, Lenk wrote that Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr.’s office failed to prove that the child was alive at birth and failed to show that Pugh’s decision not to seek medical help was the reason for the child’s death.
“This is not a case of intentional homicide,’’ Lenk wrote. “Where there is evidence that a pregnant woman acts with the requisite malice in killing a viable fetus during childbirth, she may be charged under existing criminal laws that punish intentional behavior.’
“Here, however, the defendant was charged with the unintentional death of her viable fetus. The evidence does not support her conviction of involuntary manslaughter, predicated in part on an ill-defined duty raising grave constitutional concerns.’’
In a statement, Early said he accepted the court’s dismissal of the involuntary manslaughter conviction but disagreed with its decision. He also said the SJC misunderstood the reasoning Superior Court Judge Peter Agnes used to convict Pugh of the charge during a 2009 jury-waived trial. Pugh was 30 when she was sentenced.
“Judge Agnes did not convict the defendant for failing to seek medical care in delivering her baby. Instead, he convicted her for inflicting such severe injuries upon the baby that the baby suffered severe hemorrhaging throughout his body,’’ Early said.
“The baby’s abdominal cavity was filled with blood. She then threw the baby’s body in a trash can, and it was only discovered when it was crushed in a trash truck. I am proud to have stood up for this child, when no one else cared what happened to him. I will continue to fight for victims. I believe Judge Agnes had it right.”
Pugh’s attorney, Peter L. Ettenberg, said that Pugh greeted the ruling with relief because it brings to a close the criminal case that has overshadowed her life for the past five years. “She was very happy,’’ he said. “She just couldn’t believe that this is over.’’
Ettenberg disputed Early’s criticism of the SJC ruling. He said that during the trial, doctors called as expert witnesses could not say if Pugh’s child was alive at birth.
He said the SJC recognized that “not all birthing situations are alike . . . . Some unattended births will go just fine, and some will not.’’
The mother has “a right to determine when, how, and in what circumstances the birth of a child will take place. There is no legal requirement that the woman seek medical assistance,’’ he said.
The case drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, and the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts.
Andrea C. Kramer, speaking on behalf of the Women’s Bar Association, applauded the SJC. She said the ruling protects the majority of women from having their rational birthing decisions — including home births — subjected to scrutiny by police and prosecutors.
“Most women are competent decision-makers, and quite honestly, they have their fetus’s best interest in mind,’’ Kramer said. “
Kramer added that the focus of government should be on providing quality prenatal care to pregnant women, not imprisoning them in the rare instance where an unattended birth ends in the death of a child.
“Don’t punish,’’ she said. “Let’s make good decision-making something that’s possible.’’
John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com.