One little step

National | A judge gives protection to an unborn child

Issue: "Something's rotten," Sept. 30, 2000

When presiding in his gold-gilded courtroom, Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Nasif sports a silver Harley Davidson belt buckle with his conservative black suit. A poster of Elvis Presley straddling a motorcycle adorns the door to his private office, where an array of motorcycle paraphernalia-Harley coffee mugs, key chains, and bumper stickers-litter office shelves.

"It [motorcycle riding] is a feeling of independence when you're going down the highway. It's just yourself and the wind," the judge told WORLD. Lately Judge Nasif has found himself on another independent ride, this time down the untraveled road of "fetal rights."

At issue is "Unborn Baby Corneau"-a soon-to-be-born baby whose mother, Rebecca Corneau, belongs to a religious cult located in Attleboro, about an hour south of Boston. Composed of 13 adults and 13 children, the 20-year-old cult disdains any involvement with society, including medical care.

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According to cult journals and the testimony of ex-members, last year Mrs. Corneau gave birth to a baby boy and then watched as he suffocated to death on birth canal contents instead of seeking medical help. Harrowing evidence also surfaced that cult members may have starved to death a 9-month-old baby boy who stopped nursing. To protect "Baby Corneau" from a similar fate, Judge Nasif has authorized Mrs. Corneau's confinement to a state hospital until the baby is born. Though government-mandated medical care seems a drastic action, it's the reasoning behind the action that has stirred controversy.

By deeming "Baby Corneau" a person with a constitutional right to life that supersedes the mother's religious freedom, Judge Nasif set a groundbreaking legal precedent and raised the ire of pro-abortion advocates.

Granting his first in-depth interview on the issue, Judge Nasif agreed to talk with WORLD on the condition that he not be asked about specific case details.

"It's not politically correct these days to take action that adversely goes against the desires and wishes of women who are pregnant concerning their unborn children," he said. "But I'm not a politically correct person. I never was and I never want to be. I call it the way I see it." In this case, he saw a person and called that person "Baby Corneau."

By doing so, the judge entered uncharted-and very stormy-legal waters. While other state courts have granted unborn babies constitutional rights, most of those rulings apply to the unborn victims of crimes committed against pregnant women. But this case marks one of the first times a court has granted an unborn baby protection against its own mother before a crime is committed.

Baby Corneau could be born any day now. Meanwhile, Judge Nasif is incurring criticism for his ruling and his much-publicized comment that he heard the unborn child's voice pleading, "I don't want to die."

"Nasif's babbling about voices from beyond will give powerful credence to those who believe that this ruling is ultimately about legislating morality from the bench," wrote Boston Globe columnist Adam Walker. But the judge, who received a lifetime appointment in 1983, insisted that reporters inaccurately portrayed his courtroom statements. He says that he was actually referring to the voices of the unborn child's court-appointed guardian and lawyer.

So perhaps the real issue is whether the unborn child should have any "voice" at all. "There's no such thing as fetal rights," asserted Wendy Murphy, a lawyer who unsuccessfully tried to intervene in the Corneau case on behalf of pregnant women. "Unborn babies are important to us ... but we don't solve these problems by elevating unborn fetuses to the status of having rights."

Ironically, Judge Nasif based his decision on the Supreme Court's own wording in Roe vs. Wade that "After the point of viability a woman's freedom to choose must yield to the State's legitimate interest in protecting health and safety of both the child and mother." Since the fetus was viable-meaning Baby Corneau could live outside the womb-other legal actions to protect the child logically followed, said the judge. "To make the decision that this was a viable fetus ... that was the difficult decision in this case. If I didn't do that there would be no case here."

In addition to the Elvis Presley poster another image adorns Judge Nasif's office-that of a 19-week-old fetus. Next to the image are the words, "When they tell you that abortion is a matter just between a woman and her doctor, they're forgetting someone."

Judge Nasif was careful to separate his "personal, private" views on abortion from the Corneau case, insisting the case was "not a referendum on abortion." After all, no legal protection would have existed for an unborn Corneau baby in the first or second trimester. "But I stand by what I did," he said. "I took one little step in the right direction."


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