Friday, March 26, 2004

The Senate yesterday approved a bill that would recognize two victims when a pregnant woman and her unborn child are injured or killed as a result of a federal crime.

“Today is a monumental day,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. “When a criminal attacks a pregnant woman and her unborn child and kills them, he has claimed not one, but two precious lives.”

The chamber narrowly defeated two Democratic amendments before approving the clean, House-passed legislation by a vote of 61-38, clearing the way for President Bush’s signature. Thirteen Democrats crossed party lines to vote for the bill, while two Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it. Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts voted against it.

“It’s really a bill about simple justice,” said the bill’s main sponsor, Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio.

In a statement released last night, the Bush administration said it “strongly supports protection for unborn children and therefore strongly supports prompt enactment of [the bill.]”

Pro-choice groups and lawmakers say the bill is a blatant attempt to chip away at abortion rights by recognizing, for the first time, an embryo or fetus as a person with separate legal rights in the eyes of federal law.

“It will be the first step in removing a woman’s right to choice,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.

Mrs. Feinstein offered an alternative to the bill, which was defeated 50-49. That bill would have allowed prosecutors to file an additional charge against a criminal who attacks a pregnant woman, but would not have recognized the fetus as a second victim.

She argued that her proposal would accomplish the same goals as Mr. DeWine’s bill, “without injecting the debate over a woman’s right to choose.” But Mr. DeWine said the California senator’s approach is “fatally flawed,” because it fails to recognize two victims.

He also said his bill will have no impact on abortion rights, because “states have bills like this, and they have not interrupted peoples’ [abortion] rights.”

Mr. Kerry voted for the one-victim approach, and some family members of slain pregnant women had strong words for him.

“I’m appalled that Senator Kerry voted the wrong way,” said Carol Lyons of Kentucky, whose pregnant daughter, Ashley, and grandson Landon were murdered in January. “He’s running for president of the United States, and he doesn’t believe there are two victims. … I know my grandbaby was real … I have two victims.”

The legislation is popular among the public and is being pushed by several families of pregnant victims, including the California family of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, as well as the Lyonses.

The bill makes it a separate federal crime to hurt or kill a fetus at any stage of pregnancy during the commission of about 68 federal crimes against a pregnant woman. It explicitly exempts legal abortion.

Although more than half the states have fetal-homicide laws, there is no equivalent in federal law, which recognizes a crime only against the pregnant woman.

The Senate also defeated an amendment by Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, that included several provisions aimed at domestic abuse, including giving victims of abuse access to unemployment insurance if they’ve been forced to leave their job because of the violence and providing them access to expanded emergency leave so they can go to court or to the police to stop abuse.

Supporters of the underlying bill said attaching Mrs. Murray’s amendment would have doomed the measure, because the House never would accept such dramatic changes to employment law.

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