WASHINGTON (ABP) — The Senate has given final approval to a bill that treats violence against a pregnant woman as two separate crimes — against her and the fetus she is carrying.
Opponents of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act say it will undermine abortion rights by defining a fetus — from conception — as a human life in federal law.
The bill passed on a 61-to-38 vote March 25. Earlier in the day, the Senate voted 50 to 49 to reject a substitute bill offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). That alternative would have created the same penalties as the original bill without defining the fetus as human life.
The House passed the measure in February. Although that chamber passed similar bills two previous times, the Senate failed to follow suit until now.
President Bush, in a statement promising to sign the bill into law, urged Americans to “continue to build a culture of life in our country, a compassionate society in which every child is welcomed in life and protected by law.”
The measure would be applicable only to federal crimes, such as those that take place on federal lands or against certain government employees. But supporters said Congress needs to bring federal law in line with state statutes. Twenty-nine states already have laws that recognize crimes against fetuses.
The bill also contains an exception that explicitly protects abortion doctors from being prosecuted under its provisions.
Although the bill's sponsors have said publicly that they had no intention to undermine abortion rights, anti-abortion groups have lobbied heavily for the bill and praised its passage.
“This law recognizes what all of us already know: There are two victims in a crime against a pregnant woman,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement released shortly after the bill's passage. He went on to say that law brings the nation “one giant step closer” to building a society “where every child — born and unborn — is given the protections they so clearly deserve.”
In Senate floor debate on her substitute bill, Feinstein said bill supporters and opponents both want “to accomplish the same goal — punishing those who, by attacking or killing a pregnant woman, deprive families not only of the mother but also of the joy to help raise the child yet to be born.”
But, Feinstein said, the original proposal is “more complicated” because “experts on both sides of this issue agree the language in the bill will clearly place into federal law a definition of life that will chip away at the right to choose as outlined in Roe vs. Wade,” the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in all 50 states.
Noting the law would be the first to define an unborn child at any stage of development as a victim with rights separate from those of its mother, Feinstein said it was a short legal step from there to outlawing abortion altogether: “If a fetus who dies during a crime is a murder victim, then isn't abortion murder?”