Washington Post: President Bush has signed a bill making it a federal crime to kill or hurt a fetus while committing some other federal crime. The bill, which had been under consideration in Congress for several years and is similar to laws in 29 states, will turn harming a fetus into an offense distinct from harming the woman carrying that fetus. While the law exempts abortions, and its backers insist that it has nothing to do with the abortion debate, it provocatively defines an "unborn child" as "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."
This definition does not coexist easily with the notion that killing one's own fetus is a matter of constitutional right, which is one of the reasons the bill appeals to abortion opponents. Proponents of the law highlight the tragic cases in which pregnant women have been murdered and ask whether there is one victim or two -- which makes for undeniably powerful rhetoric. But what does it mean to have a legally defined category of person whose killing the law calls murder in some contexts and a matter of judicially enforceable maternal right in others?
Had the policy goal been simply to value fetal life by punishing those who harm pregnant women, that could have been accomplished uncontroversially. A narrowly defeated amendment proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would have prohibited terminating a woman's pregnancy while committing a violent crime but not defined that act as murder. But that wasn't good enough for the bill's backers. As the National Right to Life Committee put it, Feinstein's amendment "would codify the doctrine that when a woman and her unborn child are injured or killed during a federal crime, that crime has only a single victim" -- which would defeat the whole purpose.
This new law will aid criminal enforcement only marginally; it will be another unwarranted step toward making constitutionally protected abortion seem an anomaly in the context of law.