FETAL PROTECTION: House Approves Controversial Bill
The U.S. House last night voted 254-172 to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes injuring a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman a separate, punishable federal offense, the New York Times reports. The bill defines an unborn child as "a member of the species Homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb." Republicans rejected 224-201 an alternative proposal offered by Democrats that would "increase the criminal penalties for certain acts of violence against pregnant women." House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) said, "How can you recognize the need for prenatal care and reject the baby's right to protection from violence?" And Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) added that the bill "fills a gap in our criminal law." But White House officials said they "strongly oppos[e]" the bill, adding that identifying a fetus as separate and distinct is "unprecedented as a matter of federal statute," and that they would strongly recommend a veto should it arrive on President Clinton's desk (Pear, 10/1).
Despite bill sponsor Rep. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) assertion that he "never wanted his bill to turn into an abortion debate," it has done just that, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports (Howe, 10/1). USA Today reports that the bill is part of "a broader strategy by antiabortion forces to focus on issues, such as banning so called late-term abortions, that might attract broad popular support" (Koch, 10/1). And while the bill's supporters argue that it serves as protection for "unborn children," opponents say it is an attempt to undermine Roe v. Wade. Hyde said, "This bill recognizes that when a pregnant woman is assaulted it is a more serious situation. That second little victim deserves recognition." However, noting that the bill was backed by many antiabortion groups, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) said, "Instead of addressing the real issue at hand, this bill is an ideological marker for the anti-choice special interests" ( AP/Baltimore Sun, 10/1). The bill does provide exemptions for abortion providers and pregnant women who undergo the procedure. However, it applies only to federal and military law and has "no effect on the vast majority of assaults and killings in the United States, which are traditionally covered by state law" (Scully, Washington Times, 10/1). In a letter to Hyde, the Justice Department said the bill was "constitutionally suspect and 'unprecedented as a matter of federal statute' in making the fetus and mother separate victims" (AP/Baltimore Sun, 10/1). Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) echoed those concerns and charged that the bill was a "back door attack on Roe v. Wade. "The Supreme Court has never recognized an unborn child as having legal status," Conyers said. Sens. Mike DeWine (R-OH) and Tim Hutchinson (R-AR) are reportedly sponsoring similar legislation in the Senate (New York Times, 10/1).
- Family Research Council's Janet Parshall: "A profound moment in pro-life history. The law must account for the grief of parents who have suffered due to the death or injury of their preborn child as a result of violence" (FRC release, 9/30).
- The National Right to Life Committee Douglas Johnson: "The bill simply puts federal law behind the common sense recognition that when a criminal attacks a pregnant woman, and injures or kills her unborn child, he has claimed two human victims" (NRLC release, 10/1).
- Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy: The legislation's true intent is to "erode the reproductive rights of women" (CRLP release, 9/30).
- Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America: "Anti-choice members of Congress should be ashamed of their hideous exploitation of a woman's tragic loss in their relentless pursuit to ban abortion" (PPFA release, 9/30).
- Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice's Rev. Carlton Veazey: The bill "could put the woman and fetus in conflict and could place the health, worth and dignity of women on a lower level" (RCRC release, 9/30).
- Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League: "We desperately need strong federal legislation to prevent and punish the epidemic of violence against women, but in the process we must not needlessly create a foundation for a future legal assault on Roe v. Wade, which is the clear intent of this bill" (NARAL release, 9/30).