Thursday, April 1, 2004

President Bush yesterday signed legislation that criminalizes harming a fetus while assaulting a pregnant woman during a federal crime, the first national law granting an unborn child a status separate from the mother.

In a high-profile ceremony in the White House’s East Room, attended by parents and relatives of murdered pregnant women, the president signed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, a narrow law that mirrors statutes now in place in 29 states.

“As of today, the law of our nation will acknowledge the plain fact that crimes of violence against a pregnant woman often have two victims,” Mr. Bush said.

“Under this law, those who direct violence toward a pregnant woman will answer for the full extent of the harm they have done, and for all the crimes they have committed,” he said to applause.

Although the law applies only in assaults that are already federal, such as a drug-related shooting, the statute pleases social conservatives, who make up the president’s political base and overwhelmingly oppose abortion. The law applies to fetuses at “any stage of development.”

More than 80 percent of Americans think the murder of a pregnant woman takes two lives, according to three national public opinion polls. Fewer than 10 percent think such a crime has only one victim.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry voted against the bill last month in the Senate. Yesterday, his spokesman called the new law an infringement of a woman’s right to choose.

“John Kerry strongly supports making it a federal crime to commit an act of violence against a pregnant woman,” David Wade said. “He agrees with the vast majority of Americans who want tough punishment for anyone who would commit such heinous crimes and know we can do so without undermining a woman’s right to choose.”

The House passed the bill by a 245-163 vote; the Senate by a 61-38 margin.

The law states that “nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the prosecution … of any person for conduct relating to an abortion for which the consent of the pregnant woman, or a person authorized by law to act on her behalf, has been obtained.”

Despite that clause, Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Mr. Bush “is making good on his pledge to do everything in his power to restrict a woman’s right to choose.”

“Pro-choice Americans aren’t going to forget this president’s record, with its steady drumbeat of attacks on reproductive freedom,” she said in a statement.

David Seldin, a spokesman for the group, said his organization supported a bill that did not establish the unborn child as a separate entity.

“What they insisted on that was so unnecessary to the goal of protecting women and punishing criminals was to grant separate legal status to embryos, fetuses and two-cell zygotes at the moment of conception,” he said.

Opponents of abortion said the new law will protect unborn children and took issue with Mr. Kerry’s contention that it will infringe on a woman’s right to abortion.

“If there ever was a bill to protect a woman’s right to choose, it is this bill that seeks to deter violence against or at least provide justice to the pregnant woman who is choosing life for her unborn child only to see her choice deprived by a crime of violence against her and/or her child,” said Samuel B. Casey, head of the Christian Legal Society.

Mr. Bush said the new statute, often referred to as the “Laci and Conner” law, after Laci Peterson, who was eight months pregnant with a boy she planned to name Conner when she was slain, simply corrects a legal “omission.” Her husband, Scott, is accused of two counts of murder.

“The death of an innocent unborn child has too often been treated as a detail in one crime, but not a crime in itself,” he said.

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