Saturday, 6 December 2014

RS Question of the Week - Can You Commit a Crime Against Someone Before They're Born?

Photo: BBC

This week's question of the week is taken from the sad story of a seven-year-old girl born with severe brain damage after her mother drank up to eight cans of strong lager and half a bottle of vodka per day while pregnant.

Three judges ruled that she was not entitled to criminal damages under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme as the damage she undoubtedly suffered was inflicted while she was a foetus, not while she was a person: UK law only recognises crimes against persons.

The key questions I've been discussing with my students are:
  • Can you commit a crime against somebody before they are born?
  • At what point does a foetus become a person?

You can download a poster for this week's question here, and a pdf of a Daily Mirror story (yes, I know) about the case here.


  1. Isn't the law quite clear? A person does not legally exist until they are born.

    I think this was to clarify the issue of inheritance.

    Even churches refuse to give funeral ceremonies for miscarriages.

  2. Hi Steven, Thanks for the comment.

    My understanding of the case is that it is about criminal compensation, not inheritance.

    Clearly, a person isn't legally a person until they are born (that was the ruling in this case). However, the seven year old girl in the case clearly is a person, so it isn't a case of an abortion or a miscarriage, it's a question of whether a person is entitled to some form of redress for actions that have undoubtedly harmed them, but which took place before they became persons.

    The question, I guess, is whether we have responsibilities towards persons, that extend back before they became persons (and if so, how far this goes). I've certainly heard ethicists argue that we have to consider the impact of our actions on future generations (i.e. as yet unborn persons) when we consider issues such as the environment.

    Personally, I'm of the view that the manufacturers of thalidomide bear some moral responsibility towards those born with deformities because their mothers took the drug while pregnant. Again, while they may not have been persons at the time, they clearly developed into persons, and morally I think it's obvious that the drugs companies have some moral responsibility towards these persons.