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Personhood gets some judicial support

Personhood of unborn children gained small but significant judicial support this month from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

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Yesterday WorldNetDaily reported on an interesting, and potentially powerful, ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. That Court ruled earlier this month that a murder defendant was specifically liable in the death of the unborn child of his target. This is the latest establishment of personhood for unborn children in the United States today. While it seems to apply only to “viable” unborn children, even that militates against allowing abortion on demand up to or past the moment of birth. In fact it sets fetal viability as a near-absolute limit. Furthermore, this comes from the highest court in a “blue State.” Thus the pro-life cause has its greatest victory since Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Circumstances of the case

The case of Commonwealth v. Ronchi (SJC-13043) concerns a brutal and vicious murder. The defendant Peter Ronchi lived with his eventual victim for two years in a shared apartment in Salem, Massachusetts. Ronchi and his girlfriend (they never married) did quarrel from time to time over her preference for naturalistic prenatal care.

On the night in question she apparently told him he was not the father of the child she was carrying. (The Court found from evidence that he actually was.) Ronchi became terrifically angry, took a hunting knife out of the pocket of his coat, unsheathed it, and stabbed her fifteen times in the abdomen, and the back of the head and neck. He then walked out of the apartment, leaving her on the floor to bleed to death. Her distraught children flagged down an adult in the hallway the next morning. This adult found her body, covered in a sheet, then took the children to another apartment and called for help.

The District Attorney charged Ronchi with two counts of first-degree murder, one each for the girl and her unborn child. Ronchi never disputed stabbing the girl. But he contested the first murder count by claiming provocation from her revelation of infidelity to him. The count, he contended, should have been voluntary manslaughter, not murder. He also contested the second count by saying his knife never reached the fetus. Therefore its death was incidental to that of the girl.

A note on nomenclature

Massachusetts calls its highest court the Supreme Judicial Court, because it calls its legislature the General Court. That name for its legislature goes back to Colonial days. In fact, the Constitution of Massachusetts is older than the U.S. Constitution.


Justice Frank M. Gaziano delivered the opinion of the Court in this case. Justice Elspeth B. Cypher wrote a concurrence that if anything is more instructive.

The provocation angle

The Judicial Court made two important findings, one of which seems to reinforce the other. First, the defendant contended that his girlfriend provoked him to hot passion by telling him he wasn’t the child’s father. Whether that statement was true or false (a lower court found it false), doesn’t matter. What matters is that he believed it – and whether the courts should take that as a valid excuse. Of course nothing could excuse the act completely, but Ronchi hoped he could “cop it” to voluntary manslaughter.

The Supreme Judicial Court was having none of that. Tellingly, the Court acknowledged that an earlier Court had set a precedent for accepting such an excuse. That precedent in turn relied on English common law, which (according to the Court) treated women as property. Adultery – in this case a common-law wife having intimate contact with another man – was an “invasion of property.” But last year, the Court had already suggested that the law must not “recognize male irrationality as normal.” This time the Court cited an Ohio case holding that the “Unwritten Law” letting a man take the ultimate revenge in such cases, was “archaic” and had “no place in modern society.”

Last year’s statements might have been obiter dicta (literally, by-the-way sayings). This time the Court explicitly disavowed the “Unwritten Law” in Massachusetts. They decried the “shaky, misogynistic foundation” for this “Law.” (Emphasis ours.)

Obviously the Court came by that finding from a classically leftist perspective. Which brings us to:


The personhood angle

The Judicial Court acknowledged, first of all, a serious omission in common law:

At common law, the destruction of a fetus in utero was not a homicide.

Again the Court found that an earlier case:

examined the foundation for the “ancient” rule that a fetus must be “born alive,” and rejected this limitation to the statutory definition of a person.

In throwing out that rule, the earlier Court substituted this one:

Infliction of prenatal injuries resulting in the death of a viable fetus, before or after it is born, is homicide.

The earlier case involved “vehicular homicide.” A prosecutor charges that when someone drives under the influence and causes fatal injuries to others as a result. In this case, Ronchi contended that his knife never touched the unborn child; so the earlier case did not apply. Oh, yes, it does, said the Court. Again quoting the earlier case:

If a person were to commit violence against a pregnant woman and destroy the fetus within her, we would not want the death of the fetus to go unpunished.

Furthermore the Court considered whether the defendant “specifically intended to kill the fetus.” Yes, he did, said the Court. He had already expressed concerned (well-founded or not) about her “natural methods” of prenatal care. So when he wielded that knife to deadly effect, he knew perfectly well what he was doing.


Further affirmation of personhood

The Judicial Court affirmed the personhood of the unborn child in other ways. Did the judge act within his discretion to sentence Ronchi to two consecutive life terms? Again, yes. Once for the mother, the other time for her viable fetus – all within the discretion of the trial court.

The trial judge’s “charge” to the jury affirmed personhood again. To quote the judge:

A killing is not murder unless a human being has been killed. A viable fetus is a human being under the law of homicide. A fetus is viable when there is a reasonable likelihood of the fetus’s sustained survival outside the womb, with or without artificial support.

Note that last phrase carefully: with or without artificial support. Note also the earlier phrase: reasonable likelihood of sustained survival. This precedent is a direct blow against the new California rule, that seems to allow infanticide. In Massachusetts, at least, ending the life of any unborn child that has a good shot at life, is murder. That applies whether said unborn child would need ventilatory or other support – or not. For any highest State court to make such a rule, breaches the Wall of Sacrosanctity of Abortion. Massachusetts has indeed come a long way since the Supreme Judicial Court acquitted Dr. Kenneth Edelin after he suffocated a baby in the womb after cutting its umbilical cord. (The late Dr. Edelin won Planned Parenthood’s Maggie Award in 2008 for his actions in that case.)

An instructive concurrence

Justice Cypher, in her concurrence, cited another interesting fact. Homicide is now the leading cause of death in pregnancy, and indeed outpaces the next three causes combined. Those causes, familiar to any obstetrician/gynecologist, are:

  • Toxemia of pregnancy, associated with severe heightening of blood pressure that can (but does not always) cause seizures,
  • Hemorrhage, and
  • Sepsis (an infection in and of the blood).

Indeed she cited an article in Obstetrics and Gynecology saying that more than twice as many women die from acts of murder, during pregnancy and for forty-two days after delivery, as from all other “leading causes” combined. Then she came to the point: the State must crack down – hard – on this kind of violence.

Thus a leftist Court has affirmed the personhood of an unborn child, albeit at a late state of development. And they did it in order to affirm the most severe punishment of a murder convict, short of his execution. A decision that started with a repudiation of the “Unwritten Law” – not to mention the code of machismo – ended with an affirmation of personhood for unborn children.



To paraphrase Justice Cypher, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court took a laudable first step. But the Court has many other precedents to override to achieve a completely satisfactory result. Chief among these is Commonwealth v. Edelin (1976), which Justice Gaziano specifically cited.

Nevertheless, this victory will last, precisely because a Court granted it from a leftist perspective. Nor should any man hold any brief for Peter Ronchi, or anyone else who does what he did. Machismo can never be an excuse for such behavior.

More to the point: CNAV would gladly throw such a “macho man” to the she-wolves, as the price for affirming personhood for any unborn child. To quote Matt Staver, head of Liberty Counsel:

Abortion has distorted the law. It makes perfect sense to charge a person with murder who kills an unborn child. It makes no sense to call this “choice” when the mother does the killing. Homicide can only be committed against a person – a human being. Homicide cannot be committed against property or a non-person. Plain and simple – abortion is homicide because the act of killing the child is the same whether it is done by a violent actor or a doctor in a white lab coat.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court didn’t go all the way to full recognition of that fact at all stages. But it just took a giant step in that direction.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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