Monday, February 16, 2004

In the wake of a recent unsolved slaying of a mother and her unborn son, Kentucky is considering adopting fetal homicide laws similar to those in 28 other states.

“There was already momentum for this legislation, but the [Jan. 7] murders” of 18-year-old Ashley Lyons and her 21-week-old fetus “definitely help push” the measure through the Kentucky legislature, said Jeannie Lausche, spokeswoman for Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican.

Mr. Fletcher supports the bill, which would make a fetus in the womb a human being and a crime victim if the mother is harmed or killed. The bill was passed by the state’s House of Representatives and reported out favorably by the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee.

“In the eyes of the [state’s] law, Landon Lyons [the unborn child] never existed … he was a nothing,” but that will change for other unborn babies if the Kentucky fetal homicide bill becomes law,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

He said he is optimistic that the measure will pass.

If it does, Kentucky will become the 16th state that recognizes an “unborn child” as a crime victim at all periods of a woman’s pregnancy.

One of those states — California — adopted a law in 1970 that defines murder as the “unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.”

It is because of that law that murder defendant Scott Peterson of Modesto has been charged with the slayings of both his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, and their unborn son.

The Peterson case has focused national public interest in fetal homicide legislation. Polls show up to 80 percent of Americans favor fetal homicide laws.

In addition to the 15 states that classify a fetus as a victim throughout the entire period of prenatal development, 13 other states consider the fetus’ age before granting victim status. In Arkansas, for example, the killing of an “unborn child” of 12 weeks or greater gestation is murder.

In Florida, the killing of an unborn child is manslaughter, as it is in Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Washington. In South Carolina, the “killing of an unborn child after viability is homicide.”

An article in the National Right to Life News says at least nine states are considering fetal homicide bills at this time. In Virginia, both houses of the legislature have “passed strong fetal homicide bills,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview.

Maryland has no such laws regarding fetal homicide and is not considering any such legislation.

Meanwhile, President Bush is calling for Congress to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, a bill that would allow separate charges to be brought on behalf of unborn babies who are killed or injured by those committing federal or military crimes against their mothers.

The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, has 25 co-sponsors. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Melissa A. Hart, Pennsylvania Republican, has 136 co-sponsors.

But there is opposition to the bill by some powerful pro-choice organizations.

“We are opposed to legislation that attempts to elevate the status of the fetus … we feel opponents of Roe v. Wade are using this means … to overthrow Roe [the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion],” said Susanne Martinez, vice president for public policy for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Instead of legislation that would categorize fetuses as crime victims, Ms. Martinez said Planned Parenthood supports state laws that impose heavier charges for assaults on pregnant women than on nonpregnant women.

Mr. Johnson said some top female Democrats in Congress are offering a similar amendment to the proposed Unborn Victims of Violence Act. But the NRLC opposes such a change, because the amendment “doesn’t say anything about the unborn child being a second victim,” he said.

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