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Fetal Rights: Chronology of Court Cases


A civil action (Dobson vs. Dobson) is launched on behalf of Ryan Dobson by Gerald Price, his maternal grandfather and guardian. The action is against the boy's mother for prenatal injuries sustained by the boy as a fetus. Cynthia Dobson of Moncton, N.B., was 27 weeks pregnant when her car collided with a pickup truck in a near fatal accident in 1993. Doctors performed an emergency caesarean section. Born three months premature, Ryan has serious physical and mental impairments, including cerebral palsy. Gerald Price wants to win damages from Dobson's insurance company for Ryan's care. (i)


Brenda Drummond, a 28-year-old postal worker and mother of two, is charged with attempted murder of her son and with criminal negligence causing bodily harm. On May 28, Drummond shot herself in the vagina with a pellet gun. Two days later, she delivered her son, Jonathon, alone in the bathroom of her home outside of Ottawa. A brain scan reveals that the infant has an injury from a pellet. Drummond spends the next month in a psychiatric hospital undergoing assessment. Counsel for Drummond argues that there is no offense and the case should be dismissed as a fetus is not a person. (ii)

A settlement is reached between Cynthia Dobson (and her insurance company) and Ryan Dobson (represented by his guardian Gerald Price). The insurance company agrees to provide an undisclosed sum for Ryan's care (iii). If the boy wins the right to sue his mother, the company agrees to make a further payment without the requirement of additional court proceedings. (iv)

Jonathon Drummond is released from hospital in good condition. Brenda Drummond spends the next seven months in a psychiatric hospital being treated for depression. (v)

A case is brought forward by Winnipeg Family and Child Services against a pregnant mother of three children. Two of these children suffer from brain damage as a result of her drug dependency. Mr. Justice Perry Schulman of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench commits the 22-year old pregnant aboriginal woman (called "G") to drug treatment after ruling that she is not mentally competent as a result of her addiction to sniffing solvents such as glue, nail polish remover and paint thinner. A court-ordered psychiatric report, however, finds the woman mentally competent. This decision of the "G" case seems to protect the health of the fetus. (vi) The mother appeals this decision.

The Manitoba Court of Appeal unanimously reverses the decision of the lower court in Winnipeg Child and Family Services v. G (D.F.). The Court rules that courts cannot order a mentally competent person to undergo treatment against her will. (vii)

The Supreme Court of Canada grants leave to hear the appeal of Winnipeg Child and Family Services in the "G" case to resolve the issue of whose rights should prevail: those of a woman or those of a fetus.(viii) By the time this case is scheduled to reach the Court, the woman will already have given birth to her baby.

Ontario Court (Provincial Division) judge Madam Inger Hansen dismisses the attempted murder charge against Brenda Drummond, holding that the fetus is not a person until birth and is not included in the Criminal Code.(ix)


Ontario's Attorney-General announces that the court's decision in R. v. Drummond will not be appealed.(x)

A New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench judge rules that a child has the right to sue his mother for injuries suffered in a car accident while still in her uterus. Mr. Justice Richard Miller says no Canadian precedent exists with respect to whether a child can sue his or her mother for prenatal injuries. The judge rejects arguments that Ryan Dobson could not sue because the accident occurred before birth. Lawyers for Cynthia Dobson appeal the decision.(xi)

Brenda Drummond appears in court on the charge of criminal negligence. She pleads guilty to a lesser charge of failing to provide the necessities of life to her son by not telling doctors that she had shot herself during pregnancy. Justice Hansen gives Drummond a suspended sentence and 30 month's probation. Drummond had told a psychiatrist that she was attempting to commit suicide and did not know that she was pregnant when she shot herself.(xii)

The New Brunswick Court of Appeal upholds the earlier decision of a lower court allowing Ryan Dobson to sue his mother for injuries he sustained in a car accident as a fetus. The court says that a pregnant mother has a duty to drive carefully.(xiii)

The "G" case is heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. Twelve intervenors on both sides of the fetal rights issue, (such as women's, aboriginal, human rights and religious groups) present arguments before the Court.(xiv)

Counsel for Cynthia Dobson seeks leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Leave to appeal is granted in November without reasons.(xv)

In the "G" case, the Supreme Court of Canada rules 7-2 that courts cannot force a pregnant woman to undergo treatment to prevent harm to her fetus. The Court reaffirms that a fetus does not have legal rights.(xvi)

The Supreme Court of Canada announces that it will hear Dobson v. Dobson to determine if a child can sue his or her mother for prenatal injuries sustained in a car accident.(xvii)


Cynthia Dobson's appeal is heard and reserved by the Supreme Court of Canada.(xviii)


The Supreme Court of Canada rules that a child cannot sue its mother for injuries incurred before birth.(xix)

Produced with support from:
Development Services International of Canada
November 1999

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(416) 961-7812

(i)"Mother Sued Over Prenatal Injuries", Globe and Mail (4 February 1997), A8.
(ii)"Shooting of Fetus Sparks Debate Over Status of Unborn", Toronto Star (22 June 1996), A8.
(iii)Dobson v. Dobson Supreme Court of Canada decision, p. 3
(iv)"Ryan vs. His Mom: Can a Woman Be Sued for Damage to Her Fetus?" Maclean's (21 December 1998), p. 91.
(v)"Sentence Suspended in Shooting of Fetus", Globe and Mail (7 February 1997), A5.
(vi)"Judge's Order for Care 'Ethical'", Globe and Mail (8 August 1996), A1.
(vii)"Pregnant Women's Rights Affirmed", Globe and Mail (13 September 1996), A1.
(viii)"Top Court to Consider Fetal Rights", Toronto Star (19 October 1996), A12.
(ix)"Woman Cleared in Shooting of Unborn with Pellet Gun", Globe and Mail (24 December 1996), A1.
(x)"Appeal Ruled Out in Case of Shot Fetus", Globe and Mail (22 January 1997), A10.
(xi)"Mother Sued Over Prenatal Injuries", Globe and Mail (4 February 1997), A8.
(xii)"Probation for Mother Who Shot Unborn Son", Toronto Star (7 February 1997), A12.
(xiii)"Case Raises Issue of Restrictions on Pregnant Women", Globe and Mail (30 May 1997), A12.
(xiv)"Woman in Glue-Sniffing Case is Pregnant Again", Ottawa Citizen (18 June 1997), A1.
(xv)"Mother Fights Lawsuit by Son's Guardian", Toronto Star (4 September 1997), A12.
(xvi)"Lawmakers Must Decide Rights of Unborn, Top Court Says", Ottawa Citizen (1 November 1997), A1.
(xvii)"Top Court to Hear Case of Boy Hurt Before Birth", Toronto Star (21 November 1997), A8.
(xviii)"High Court Asked to Let Boy Sue Mom for Injuries Suffered in Women", Edmonton Journal (9 December 1998), A7.
(xix) Supreme Court of Canada ­ Judgment in Appeals Press Release, (9 July 1999).

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