What happens if a female is sentenced to death while pregnant. Would the execution be delayed until she gave birth? Or even longer (e.g., until the child is weaned)?

  • 2
    It usually takes several years between a death sentence and execution of that sentence, so this is usually not a question. It would only matter if a woman got pregnant while already being on death row.
    – Philipp
    Sep 9, 2015 at 11:06
  • 1
    @Philipp: Indeed. Might be interesting to address the question also to other countries with capital punishment that tend to carry out those sentences far more expeditiously than the U.S.
    – feetwet
    Sep 9, 2015 at 12:25
  • "several years" is pretty optimistic. This site suggests the average is over a decade.
    – abelenky
    Jun 26, 2019 at 19:35

3 Answers 3


While this is difficult without a specific state, as states are responsible for criminal law, 18 U.S. Code § 3596 (b) states that:

(b) Pregnant Woman.—
A sentence of death shall not be carried out upon a woman while she is pregnant.

It is likely (though I have not checked) that States will have similar legislation in place, for example, California (Cal Penal Code § 3706):

3706. If it is found that the female is not pregnant, the warden must execute the judgment; if it is found that she is pregnant the warden must suspend the execution of the judgment, and transmit a certified copy of the finding and certificate to the Governor. When the Governor receives from the warden a certificate that the defendant is no longer pregnant, he must issue to the warden this warrant appointing a day for the execution of the judgment.

This defence dates back to English common law - 14th century English common law.

It's also worth noting that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 6(5), which the vast majority of countries are party to states:

Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women.

Although treaty reservations may be made, it's unlikely to be a valid reservation, as states can't make a reservation with respect to a prohibition. In short, most countries and jurisdictions are likely to have similar laws in place.

  • 6
    It might be worth mentioning that not executing pregnant women is a practice which dates back to 14th century English common law.
    – Philipp
    Sep 9, 2015 at 11:03
  • According to the wikipedia article pleading the belly "does not constitute a defense" as the plea may only be made after conviction (presumably actually only after a sentence of death is imposed).
    – phoog
    Jun 26, 2019 at 19:03
  • I thought America executed someone recently that was under 18 at the time of the offence because what they did was so serious?
    – questioner
    May 7, 2021 at 16:14
  • @questioner: Not since Roper v. Simmons in 2005.
    – dan04
    Sep 20, 2021 at 23:22

Although this question is tagged as "United States" and the accepted answer addresses the issue there, I would like to address feewet's comment "Might be interesting to address the question also to other countries with capital punishment that tend to carry out those sentences far more expeditiously than the U.S".

Islamic Law forbids the execution of pregnant or nursing women until the child is 2 years old.

In the world famous cases of Amina Lawal and Safiya Hussaini, Nigerian women condemned for adultery in 2002, execution was delayed until end of breastfeeding, although conviction was overturned in the end. According to New York Times, "Ms. Lawal was to be executed as soon as she had finished weaning the child".

  • The wording is mildly misleading, since they were not executed and the convictions were overturned. But, yeah.
    – user6726
    Jan 30, 2017 at 1:00
  • As far as I can recall, executions were delayed before they were overturned. I remember from news in that time that human rights organisations were using the delay time to try to overturn the conviction.
    – Pere
    Jan 30, 2017 at 9:41
  • I found a reference and updated the answer.
    – Pere
    Jan 30, 2017 at 9:45

Obviously, a woman would not be executed while pregnant, but Title 18 U.S. Code § 3596 (b) does not make mention of further procedures to ensure the woman's life. This leads one to believe that the legal connotation is that the woman would be executed after giving birth, or that state would enforce an abortion. In any case, the code states that once proof of either birth or abortion occurred, the sentence of death is then re-instated.

  • 1
    Enforcing an abortion would seem rather contrary to the spirit of 18 USC 3596(b). But it's interesting to note from 18 USC 3596(a) that federal death sentences would seem to be impossible to execute if all states outlawed the death penalty.
    – phoog
    Jun 26, 2019 at 18:57
  • 1
    @phoog An enforced abortion might also run afoul of the Hyde Amendment.
    – cpast
    Jun 26, 2019 at 22:14

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