Sat, Mar 27, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US Senate passes `unborn child' bill, riles rights groups

REUTERS , WASHINGTON

The US Senate, after an emotional debate, easily passed legislation on Thursday to make it a federal crime to harm or kill an "unborn child," an issue that spilled into the battle over abortion rights.

The Republican-led Senate sent the measure, earlier approved by the House of Representatives, to US President George W. Bush on a 61-38 vote.

Bush applauded the Senate vote and said he was looking forward to signing the legislation into law.

"Pregnant women who have been harmed by violence, and their families, know that there are two victims -- the mother and the unborn child -- and both victims should be protected by federal law," Bush said in a statement.

Earlier, the Senate rejected, by a 50-49 vote, an alternative championed by California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, which would have punished violence against pregnant women without treating an "unborn child" as a separate person.

Displaying photos of the small lifeless bodies and quoting women describing attacks, backers said the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" would discourage violence against women and recognize the loss and grief when a wanted pregnancy was ended by a violent crime.

The anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee backs the legislation, which treats such crimes as having two victims, the pregnant woman and the "unborn child."

But the American Civil Liberties Union called it a "thinly veiled attempt to create fetal rights and erode women's reproductive rights." The bill covers an "unborn child" at any stage of pregnancy.

Two Senate Republicans voted against the bill, while 13 Democrats broke ranks with their party and supported it, even though many of those Democrats also voted in favor of the Feinstein alternative. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, voted against the final bill and for the Feinstein proposal.

The bill has been nicknamed "Laci and Conner's Law" after Laci Peterson, a California woman who was weeks from giving birth when she was murdered in December 2002. Her unborn son was to have been named Conner. Her husband, Scott Peterson, is facing double murder charges under state law.

Opponents said the bill could undermine, or at least complicate, abortion rights by treating the fetus as a person from conception. Sponsors say they drafted the legislation to explicitly exclude abortion.

"It's simple justice," said Ohio Republican Senator Mike DeWine, a lead sponsor of the legislation.

"Abortion is not covered at all," said South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, another backer of the bill.

"We're talking about criminal activity of a third party and I don't know why you would want to give a criminal any more breaks than you had to if they go around beating on pregnant women," he said.

Laci Peterson's relatives and other families who have been victims of similar crimes have lobbied for the federal legislation.

Carol Lyons, whose 18-year-old pregnant daughter was killed in Kentucky in January, told reporters: "I know my grandbaby was real. I saw the ultrasound. I saw his heart beat."

DeWine's legislation would apply to any assault or murder covered by 68 federal offenses or the code of military justice, such as an assault on federal property.

At least 29 states already have similar laws, although some cover only portions of pregnancy.

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