Fetus case provides rare common ground
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Activists on both sides of the abortion debate yesterday said it was wrong to prosecute a Bloomfield woman who hid her stillborn fetus in a freezer.
Both sides offered sympathy for the woman, whose lawyer denounced the case as "a right-wing witch hunt."
District Judge Oscar J. Petite Jr. found enough evidence yesterday to hold Christine Hutchinson, 22, for trial on two misdemeanor counts, abusing a corpse and concealing the death of a child.
The judge lifted bond and released her from custody after nearly a week in jail. The medical examiner ruled last week that Ms. Hutchinson expelled the fetus after it died in utero at 19 to 20 weeks' gestation.
Away from the courtroom, activists who typically disagree on reproductive issues agreed that Ms. Hutchinson should be left to cope with her loss.
"There should be no criminal charges. We would do anything we could to help this woman," said Helen Cindrich, president of People Concerned for the Unborn Child. "She didn't go out and have her baby killed. The baby died and that's very, very sad."
Michael V. Ciccocioppo, who directs the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, said, "Our hearts go out to Christine and her family. It appears that her actions were motivated by her confusion and not by any attempt to disrespect her child."
Jeanne Clark, of the Squirrel Hill chapter of the National Organization for Women, said, "I don't see a crime here. I see a tragedy and a young woman by herself trying to cope with it."
Ms. Clark agreed with the abortion foes' assessment that the defendant might need counseling. The woman's lawyer said mental health counselors at the jail rendered a diagnosis of depression.
"I was shocked at the beginning that there was such a witch hunt, with them dragging her off to jail. A miscarriage is not a crime. This is a totally inappropriate matter to be dealt with by the court system," said Ms. Clark, who has been active in NOW for 30 years. Prosecuting a woman who miscarries "is really taking a tragedy and making it into a calamity," she said.
Susan Frietsche, of Pittsburgh's Women's Law Project, called the case "a tragedy on a number of levels," adding "it doesn't appear that using the muscle of the criminal courts was the right response to this."
The judge yesterday heard arguments from both attorneys and testimony from a homicide detective before ordering the defendant to trial on abuse of a corpse and a new charge of concealing the death of a child.
Detective Robert Provident told the judge he searched Ms. Hutchinson's apartment after a caller tipped off authorities about a fetus stashed in her freezer. Police found the unborn child, weighing about 9 ounces, wrapped in cellophane, cloth and a paper bag and placed inside a beer box in the freezer.
The detective said Ms. Hutchinson told police she became aware of her pregnancy April 8 and began feeling pains April 21. She said she gave birth alone in her bathroom.
Defense attorney Lawrence Fisher objected, saying: "My client had a miscarriage, your honor. Is that a crime in Pennsylvania?"
The judge asked the detective to continue. He testified that Ms. Hutchinson placed the stillborn child in the freezer because "she wasn't exactly sure" if she was going to name it or bury it. Prosecutor Michael Pradines quoted a statute making it a crime to conceal a child "whether it was born dead or alive."
Mr. Fisher argued that "if there was no live birth there is no corpse." The abuse charge "requires presumptive proof that the child was alive." The same is true for concealing a child, he said -- there was no crime if there was never a living child to hide.
He said if the mother didn't harm the fetus, there was no crime in preserving it: "She preserved a miscarriage in a blanket. That same fetus is in the coroner's freezer now."
Both prosecution and defense lawyers seem to be in uncharted waters, legal scholars said.
On the concealment charge, John M. Burkoff, a criminal law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said he thinks the defense has a strong argument.
"There's every chance that the statute as it now exists would be held unconstitutional," but the matter has not been taken up specifically by the Supreme Court.
The abuse charge might also get tossed out at the Common Pleas level.
"My guess is what the defense counsel is saying is correct," Mr. Burkoff said. "The key question is what is a corpse? Do you have to have been alive to be a corpse?"
Activists on both sides of the abortion issue said the district attorney's office should redirect its attention.
"The DA should be looking down on Liberty Avenue at what's going on 100 times a month at Planned Parenthood. That's what makes us upset," Ms. Cindrich said.
Said Ms. Clark, of NOW: "There are plenty of very serious crimes, especially very serious crimes against women and children." She said concealing a miscarriage was not one of them.
First Published May 24, 2007 11:21 pm