Sunday, February 22, 2004

The House this week will set up an election-year showdown over fetal-homicide legislation targeting Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry and a handful of Texas Democrats who have opposed such bills in the past.

The bill, called the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, would legally recognize two victims when a pregnant woman and her unborn child are harmed or killed. Polls show the idea is favored by a majority of the public, and the issue is being pushed strongly by the California family of slaying victim Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, as well as the Lyons of Kentucky, whose pregnant daughter, Ashley, and her unborn son, Landon, were killed in January.

House Republican leaders expect to vote on the bill Thursday.

Twenty-nine states — including California, where Scott Peterson is facing double-murder charges for the death of his wife, Laci, and their son — recognize the unborn as homicide victims in crimes, either throughout the pregnancy or after a certain stage. The Lyons case so mobilized the public there that state lawmakers quickly passed a fetal-homicide law this month.

At the federal level, the House has approved such legislation twice, but the Senate has never voted on it. Senate Republican leaders want to bring up the bill soon, even though Democrats have successfully stalled its consideration in the past.

President Bush supports the bill and Republican leaders say it’s both good policy and good politics.

“It has a residual effect in the campaign, but it is a policy we pursued two years before the presidential election,” said Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Opponents of the measure, including Democratic front-runner Mr. Kerry, have said it will undermine abortion rights by recognizing a fetus as a separate person with legal rights, while backers of the bill say there are clearly two victims when a pregnant woman is attacked.

“There’s overwhelming support for making an unborn baby who’s been murdered as a separate murder than the mother,” Mr. Roy said. “But the Democratic presidential candidates running in a primary have to take a position that puts themselves far out of the mainstream to a normal general election voter.”

There are a handful of Texas Democrats in the House being targeted by the vote on the legislation as well, including Reps. Martin Frost and Lloyd Doggett. They’re among the Democrats who didn’t vote for the bill last time, but face somewhat of a predicament this time, since Texas redistricting has made their districts more conservative.

Congressional Democrats have pushed an alternative version of the bill that would increase penalties for crimes against pregnant women without recognizing the fetus as a second victim. Senate Democrats will offer this “one-victim” approach when the bill is considered there, and it’s not clear which version will pass. A statement from Mr. Kerry’s office this week indicated he would support such an alternative.

But victims’ families reject this approach. A May 2003 Newsweek poll found 84 percent think that when a pregnant woman and her fetus are killed, the attacker should face two murder charges instead of one.

The legislation before the House this week would make it a separate crime to hurt or kill a fetus at any stage of pregnancy during the commission of about 68 federal crimes against the pregnant woman.

The bill would explicitly exempt legal abortion, but in an e-mail response to a constituent in June, Mr. Kerry disagreed, saying it would “clearly impact” abortion rights.

“I have serious concerns about this legislation because the law cannot simultaneously provide that a fetus is a human being and protect the right of the mother to choose to terminate her pregnancy. Therefore, I do not support the Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” he said in his e-mail.

Laci Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, wrote to Mr. Kerry in July to convince him otherwise. She argued that California’s fetal-homicide law has been around since 1970 and hasn’t affected abortion rights there at all.

“What I find difficult to understand is why groups and senators who champion the pro-choice cause are blind to the fact that these two-victim crimes are the ultimate violation of choice,” Mrs. Rocha said.

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