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House passes bill criminalizing harm to fetus

April 26, 2001
Web posted at: 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would criminalize harm brought to a fetus when a violent act is committed against its mother.

The bill would allow a second criminal offense to be filed if the pregnant woman attacked sustains an injured fetus, or if the pregnancy is terminated because of the assault.

The legislation passed 252-172, with 53 opposition Democrats lending their support. One Democrat voted 'present.' The Associated Press reported that the House passed virtually identical legislation last session by a 254-172 vote, but the Senate never took it up.

Unlike former President Clinton, who threatened to veto the measure if it ever reached his desk, President Bush praised the bill's passage.

"America's children represent our greatest hope for the future," he said in a statement. "I commend the House for its bipartisan passing of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which will make it a separate felony to harm an unborn child in the course of committing any one of 68 federal offenses. This legislation affirms our commitment to a culture of life, which welcomes and protects children."

Related laws by state
Full text of Unborn Victims of Violence Act 2001 (PDF format from U.S. Govt Printing Office)

Rep. Lindsey Graham, the author of the bill, sought to create a federal law that would provide the same sort of punishment guidelines for harm to the fetus as would be applied for physical harm to the mother.

"This bill should have the support of everyone in Congress," said Rep. Sue Myrick, R-North Carolina. "We should all agree to help young women from forced, cruel and painful abortions."

The word "abortion" represented the true nature of Thursday's debate for many House Democrats, who viewed Graham's legislation as a Republican trial balloon in an era of GOP-controlled legislative and executive branches.

Those who spoke in opposition said the bill represented an effort on the part of Republicans to undermine the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on demand.

In doing so, they argued, the Republicans were trying to begin a process that might eventually lead to the collapse of legal protections for abortion.

"This bill, for the first time, would recognize a fetus as a person, with rights separate and equal from those of the woman," said Rep. Hilda Solis, D-California.

"There will be no sneaking around today," said a testy Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "You might as well start off defending the proposition that is embedded fatally in this bill."

Republicans sought to bolster their case by providing a variety of examples of crimes they said have gone unpunished because some states and the military justice system do not recognize the fetus as a legal entity.

An example brought up numerous times was that of Gregory Robbins, an airman stationed at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, who beat his 18-year-old wife in 1996, killing the child she was carrying.

"Air Force prosecutors could charge Gregory Robbins with simple assault, but they couldn't charge him in the death of the couple's child," Myrick said. "The law ignored her pregnancy."

"This isn't a matter of how many (crimes) you can dig up," Conyers said. "It is a question of how we can deal with the subject. "If that is the way we're going to get to undermining Roe vs. Wade, our job today is to make it clear what is really going on."

But Graham, a South Carolina Republican, countered that safeguards for abortion remain intact.

"If this is an abortion bill, it is one of the worst-drafted abortion bills you can think of," he said. Graham quoted a section of the bill that read, "Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the prosecution ... of any person for conduct relating to an abortion for which the consent of the pregnant woman .. has been obtained."

Democrats advanced a substitute bill that would have attempted to alter the language of Graham's base legislation by creating a new legal status for harm against a pregnant woman, rather than applying two standards to one violent crime.

The substitute, drafted by California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, failed on a 196-229 vote.

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The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy
National Right to Life
  • Unborn Victims of Violence Act
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
NARAL: Abortion and Reproductive Rights: Choice For Women
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