Friday, March 26, 2004

Among the first joys of parenthood are those early ultrasound images of the new baby growing in the womb.

Even then, it’s not unusual for parents to start daydreaming about future milestones in their baby’s life, from the first birthday party and first day of kindergarten to college graduation.

Sadly, ultrasound images were the only glimpse the world would ever get of Landon Lyons of Kentucky, who was brutally murdered along with his mother, Ashley.

To compound the tragedy, some lawmakers have argued that the murderer, when he or she is found, should be charged only with Ashley Lyons’ homicide — and that Landon’s murder should go unpunished.

The Lyons case, along with the highly publicized Laci Peterson double-murder in California, have heightened calls for federal legislation recognizing crimes against unborn children as separate offenses from crimes against their mothers, as 29 states now do. Indeed, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Lyons family, the Kentucky legislature recently passed legislation making “fetal homicide” criminally the same as conventional homicide.

While a majority of states recognize and punish crimes against unborn children, there is no such federal statute. The proposed Unborn Victims of Violence Act would change that.

Considered (and rejected) by Congress three times since 1999, the proposed legislation would cover crimes committed in federal jurisdictions, on U.S. military bases and against federal officials. Under the proposed law, when a violent crime covered by federal statute is committed against a pregnant woman and results in injury to or the death of her unborn child, the criminal would be held accountable for committing crimes against two victims — and would be punished accordingly. Some 70 offenses would be covered by the proposal, including murder and terrorist acts.

Most of the opposition to the legislation comes from so-called “pro-choice” activists who see protection of unborn children as an attack on abortion rights. Such criticism is unfounded. The bill clearly states penalties would not apply to abortion procedures or any medical treatment given a pregnant mother that results in death or injury of an unborn child.

The effort to recast this legislation as an extension of the ongoing sanctity-of-life debate only clouds the issue.

The families of America’s most defenseless victims deserve to know that those who harm their children — born or unborn — will be held accountable. If a man drives a knife into a woman’s stomach, injuring her but killing her baby, he is a murderer, and ought to pay the price.

The legislation was approved by the House of Representatives three times in the past. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, a Harvard-educated surgeon before coming to Congress, made good on his pledge to seek action on the proposal and it passed the Senate Thursday 61-38. The bill goes to conference now and President Bush has promised to sign it.

A murderer’s hand robbed the Lyons family of a daughter and a grandson. We will never know how young Landon, under the watchful eye of his mother and his grandparents, would have grown into manhood. The Lyons family is left only with an ultrasound image of a child who never had a chance.

While there is nothing we can do to bring back Landon and his mother, federal lawmakers, by approving the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, intend to send a clear message: U.S. society will protect America’s voiceless victims. The Lyons family and other such victims deserve nothing less.

Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of Black America’s Political Action Committee.

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