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MSU College of Law

Guide to "fetus/embryo/zygote" Assignment (ISB 208L)

This guide describes some of the resources undergraduate students who are working on the “fetus/embryo/zygote” project assigned by ISB 208L (Integrative Studies in Biological Science) could use.

Question: “Following conception, at what point during the development of the human zygote is it considered to be an embryo or fetus and when does it have rights under Michigan law?”

The assignment requires undergraduates to conduct the kind of research more typically required of law students. They must search the Michigan statutes, and perhaps cases and secondary authorities as well. They will find that the legal protection accorded an unborn child will differ under different areas of law. For example, the right of a child who is born after the death of a parent to a share of that parent’s estate will be determined according to inheritance law. The killing of an unborn child is governed by a criminal statute. An injury to an unborn child is governed by tort law. In addition, the language of statutes is often interpreted by the courts, so research of case law is necessary as well.

Research Sources

Definitions of the terms (this will help with the first part of the question):

Webster’s (PE1625 .W36 1986)
Black’s Law Dictionary (KF156 .B53 1999)
(available on stands on first level of the Law Library)

Michigan Laws

Print resources (located in the Michigan collection on the first level of the Law Library):

Start with the Michigan Complied Laws Service (KFM4230 2001 .A42) or Michigan Compiled Laws Annotated (KFM4230 1948 .A44). These are “annotated codes”, which contain the language of the statutes themselves, as well as references to cases and other materials that interpret or analyze the statutory language. They are useful starting points for legal research. It makes no difference which set is used.

Possible terms to search (located in the index volumes that are shelved with the main volumes of the annotated codes):

Unborn child
After-born children or heirs

The indexes lead to sections of the Michigan Compiled Laws where legal rights of an unborn child are spelled out. The treatment of an unborn child may not always be the same, but depends on the area of law. Sometimes, a statutory provision is interpreted by the courts in decisions that are summarized in the notes sections following the section of the statute. Michigan cases are located in case reporters which are also located in the Michigan Collection on the first level of the law library.

[tip: if a statute or case uses language that is unfamiliar, it may be defined in the Black’s Law Dictionary]

Online search

Michigan statutes may also be searched on the Michigan Legislature website at the following url:

Use the “keyword” search function on the Basic Search page on the website and use any of the terms that may be used in a print search. The results list provides links to the statutory provisions that contain the term searched. Unlike the print resources, there is no explanatory provision; just the language of the statute.

Secondary sources

Selected articles found in law reviews that are located on the second floor of the law library, arranged alphabetically by title.

Person v. Potential: judicial struggles to decide claims arising from the death of an embryo or fetus and Michigan's struggle to settle the question. Dena M. Marks. Akron Law Review, Wntr 2004 vol. 37 iss. 1 pp. 41-85

Prenatal Torts in Michigan: Lingering Questions about the Wrongful Death of a Previable Fetus. Dena M. Marks, John H. Marks.
Michigan Bar Journal June 2004 v83 i6 pp. 28-31.

Telephone requests

Because the materials needed to complete the assignment are located in the law library, students who call the law library reference desk will be invited to come into the law library.

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