Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Life Definition:

Independent existence as an animate being.

Related Terms: Death, Person, Infanticide, Abortion, Persistent Vegetative State

The 1969 American law dictionary known as Ballentine's Law Dictionary defines life, simply, as "existence as an animate being."

"Life", according to the 27th edition of Stedman's, "is the condition of being alive; the state of existence characterized by such functions as metabolism, growth, reproduction, adaptation and response to stimuli".

In the 1924 case with a very lively name,  United States v. 24 Live Silver Black Foxes, Justice Neterer of the United States District Court wrote:

"Life is said to be a state in which energy of function is ever resisting decay and dissolution, and commences for many legal purposes at the period of quickening.

"Physiology defines life as existing from the period of conception. For many purposes the law concedes to physiology the fact that life commences at conception, en ventre sa mere, and is life for all beneficial purposes, but to create a civil right status a child must be born. The circulating system must be changed and the child must have an independent circulation. The umbilical cord, however, need not be severed."

This was evidently taken from William Blackstone, who, in Book 1 of his 1756 treatise, The Commentaries on the Laws of England, at page 129, defined life in similar spiritual terms:

"... the immediate gift of God and a right inherited by nature in every individual.... a state in which energy of function is ever resisting decay and dissolution."

In People v Selwa, Justice Markman of the Michigan Court of Appeals had before him a tragic set of facts. A motor vehicle accident had caused a pregnant women to be rushed to hospital where the staff decided to operate to try to save the fetus. The baby was not born viable and when life support was removed a few hours later, the child died.

"There could be no homicide without a living human being the victim. The killing of an unborn child was not a homicide at common law for the reason that the fetus was not considered a person.... It was necessary that the child be born alive and exist independently of its mother's body before it could be considered a person....

"A child is born alive and thus a person under the negligent homicide statute if, following expulsion or extraction from the mother, there is lacking an irreversible cessation of respiratory and circulatory functions or brain functions."

In People v Guthrie:

"The fetus be fully brought forth and establish an independent circulation before it can be considered a human being.... Independent circulation can be established by evidence of the fetus having breathed, but such proof usually is not conclusive in the absence of the evidence of life, such as crying."

Historically, a conviction for infanticide requires the killing of a living person, a live birth; the victim must be alive at the time of the crime for there to be homicide.1

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