Harm to woman and her fetus would be 2 crimes under bill
Democrats opposed to the bill say it undermines abortion rights.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The legal rights of the fetus are at issue in a House vote on legislation that would make it two separate crimes to harm both a pregnant woman and her unborn child.
The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, expected to pass the House today, has the strong endorsement of the White House and was near the top of the election-year wish list for President Bush's conservative base.
Backers said the measure was needed to bring federal law in line with 29 states where those who attack pregnant women can be charged with two crimes when the fetus is harmed, including murder when it dies.
Scott Peterson trial
One of those states is California, where Scott Peterson is on trial for the murder of his wife, Laci, and her unborn boy, Conner. The bill has also been designated Laci and Conner's Law.
The Democratic-led opposition, however, says the real aim of the legislation is to undermine abortion rights by giving the unborn the same legal rights as the born. They charge that abortion politics was taking precedence over the need to protect abused women.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said it would affect a woman's reproductive rights. It "is not about women and it is not about children. It's about politics."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., is offering an alternative that would increase penalties for attacks leading to the interruption of a pregnancy but would not confer separate legal rights to the fetus.
The White House, in a statement, said it opposed such an amendment but voiced strong support for the base bill.
The House passed similar bills in 1999 and 2001. The bill again faces an uphill fight in the Senate with its stronger abortion rights forces. The Senate did not take up the two previous House bills.
The legislation would apply only to attacks on women that qualify as federal offenses. Those would include such crimes as terrorist attacks, bank robberies, drug trafficking or assaults on federal land.
The sponsors of the bill, led by Rep. Melissa Hart, R-4th, of Bradford Woods, Pa., who represents Lawrence County, said they were not out to undermine abortion rights and their bill specifically precludes from prosecution those who perform legal abortions.
"This bill is not about the debate over the sanctity of human life. This bill is just about justice," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
Groups on both sides of the abortion issue have weighed in heavily on the bill.
Right to Life panel
The National Right to Life Committee urged its supporters to lobby for the legislation and carried on its Web page a 2003 e-mail from Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. John Kerry voicing opposition to a Senate version.
NARAL Pro-Choice America said Congress must do more to protect pregnant women from violence but said the unborn victims bill was a "deceptive attempt to erode Roe v. Wade," the Supreme Court decision affirming a woman's right to end a pregnancy.
The legislation defines "unborn child" as "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."
It also states that an offense does not require proof that the assailant had knowledge that the victim was pregnant. Hart noted that murder is a leading cause of death among pregnant women and in many cases the attack is made with the intention to kill the unborn child.