House bill makes harming fetus during assault a crime

Measure heads to Senate, renews emotional debate over when life begins

April 27, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - With a new ally in the White House, the House approved a bill yesterday that would establish criminal penalties for harming a human fetus during the commission of a federal offense against a woman.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, renewed the emotional debate over when life begins and sparked the year's first legislative confrontation in the House between advocates and opponents of abortion rights.

Its supporters called it an anti-violence measure designed to ensure that criminals who attack a pregnant woman are charged with murder or manslaughter if the woman survives but her "unborn child" perishes. While the bill says specifically that it does not apply to abortion, opponents said the legislation was a thinly disguised effort to undermine abortion rights by granting a new legal protection to a fetus.

The bill passed 252-172, almost the same vote as last session, when it died in the Senate in the face of a veto threat by President Bill Clinton. Fifty-three Democrats, 198 Republicans and one independent supported the measure yesterday. Twenty-one Republicans, 150 Democrats and one independent opposed it. It moves to the Senate, where party leaders seemed disinclined to act on it any time soon.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas argued that "under current law when an unborn victim is murdered in our society no one has died." He called that situation an "awful and unconscionable oversight."

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, said that the definition of the fetus in the bill was "so broad it would cover three cells."

"Make no mistake, this is an attack on a woman's right to choose, and we know clearly and squarely where the Bush administration stands," she said.

The bill, called the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act," is one of a series of measures put forward by abortion opponents in recent years that sidestep a direct confrontation over the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision on abortion rights. The abortion opponents have instead focused on a series of incremental steps that they believe will resonate with voters and draw over some lawmakers who would oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade.

The Bush White House said in a statement this week that it backed the measure because "the administration supports protection for unborn children."

Abortion rights supporters put up their own countereasure on yesterday called the "Motherhood Protection Act" to show their own commitment to fighting violence against pregnant women. That proposal would have toughened penalties for attacks on a pregnant women that compromised a pregnancy without elevating the status of a fetus. It was defeated 196-229.

The House action tossed the battle over the bill into the Senate. Even the supporters of the measure acknowledged that it faces a high hurdle there, and the Senate's Republican leaders showed no signs of putting it on the agenda any time soon.

"We will watch with great interest whether this can survive the rocks and shoals of the other body," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, calling the measure a "supreme test" of the Senate's Republican leadership.

On the other side of the issue, Maloney said, "I hope to God it is stopped in the Senate."

Under the bill passed yesterday, a person who kills or injures a fetus in the course of committing any of 68 federal crimes could be convicted of a separate offense against the fetus, defined as "a member of the species Homo sapiens at any stage of development in the womb." The penalties would be the same as the punishment that could have been imposed if the pregnant woman herself had suffered the injury inflicted on her fetus.

The day's debate was as charged as any of the abortion debates of past years even though the bill's proponents insisted that it was not an abortion measure and that it explicitly says it does not apply to abortions.

The National Right to Life Committee took out ads showing a Wisconsin woman, Tracy Marciniak, who had been attacked when she was nine months' pregnant, cradling the dead body of the son that had been days away from delivery. And Republicans had a poster of the photograph on the House floor.

The measure's supporters said it would put into federal law protections that exist in some form in 24 states and described it as a common-sense way to defend women and their "unborn children."

"America is deeply divided about government interfering with the right to choose," said Graham, "but that doesn't mean we consider the unborn child an enemy."

The opponents said the measure was designed to create a federal recognition of a fetus as a separate person. "This would be the first time in the federal legal system that we would begin to recognize a fertilized egg, a zygote, an embryo or a fetus," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat. "No sneaking around today, fellas. We're going to have to put it all on the table."

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