- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Virginia state lawmakers, officials and lobbyists are urging Gov. Mark Warner to sign two identical bills that would make murdering a fetus a crime.

The decision on the measures could affect the Democratic governor politically, since he is under pressure from both pro-life and pro-choice groups.

Mr. Warner has until midnight next Friday to act on the bills, which passed the Republican-controlled Legislature by a veto-proof majority. He can sign them, veto them, or allow them to become law without his signature.

Mr. Warner has said he supports the intent of the feticide bills, which were inspired by the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn child, Conner, in California.

Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said the governor is reviewing the bills.

The bills state that fetal homicide is murder when the person who killed the unborn child did so with malice. Current law requires prosecutors to prove that a person specifically intended to cause harm to an unborn child, which legal experts say is difficult.

The concept received national attention last month when President Bush signed a federal law called the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Twenty-nine states have similar laws.

Reproductive rights advocates say “Conner’s Law” could lead to bans on abortion since it gives a fetus rights. Supporters say the bills are necessary and would not tread on abortion rights.

The bills took on new importance in Virginia last month when a 27-year-old woman, seven months pregnant, was shot to death in Richmond.

Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican, said yesterday that Rachel Smith Austin’s murder illustrates the need for such a law.

“It’s a public safety issue,” Mr. Kilgore told The Washington Times. “If we don’t pass it we’re saying we will let murderers get away with one of their crimes.”

Mr. Kilgore, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor next year, scoffed at the pro-choice argument.

“It has nothing to do with abortion rights,” he said. “We are protecting victims. This woman is not making a choice, she is having someone walk up to her and kill her.”

Mr. Warner wanted to amend the bills by adding a sentence that said the measures are not intended to threaten women’s rights established in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade landmark decision legalizing abortion. Last month, the House rejected the amendment, 69-31, as did the Senate, 25-15.

Mr. Warner’s decision on the bills could have political consequences.

Most Democrats opposed the bills and supported Mr. Warner’s amendment. If the governor signs the bills, he could lose support from Democrats and pro-choice groups. If he vetoes the bills, he will be criticized by pro-life groups and conservatives. Those groups could play into any of Mr. Warner’s future political bids.

If Mr. Warner signs the measures, “He will hear from greatly disappointed pro-choice Virginians,” said Bennet Greenberg, director of government relations for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

“These bills are unnecessary and seriously undermine a woman’s reproductive rights,” Mr. Greenberg said. “The governor should veto them.”

However, the Family Foundation of Virginia, a pro-life group, said the bills have overwhelming support.

“This legislation is extremely popular,” said Victoria Cobb, the foundation’s director of legislative affairs. Miss Cobb cited national polls that show more than 80 percent of people in favor of laws that make it a crime to kill a fetus.

Miss Cobb said she hopes the governor will “protect women, not politics.”

The bills initially passed by a more than two-thirds vote in each chamber, making them veto-proof. Since lawmakers rejected Mr. Warner’s amendment, the governor can veto the bills. If the bills become law, they will take effect July 1.

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