WASHINGTON – By a significant margin, the House of Representatives passed Thursday the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act," which would make it a federal crime to harm or kill a fetus during any one of 68 crimes committed against a pregnant woman, regardless of whether either the mother or the attacker knew about the pregnancy.
The bill, which passed by a vote of 252-172, has the support of President Bush. The bill passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate and is unlikely to be taken up by the Senate this year.
Republicans argued that stronger penalties are needed because currently when a pregnant woman loses her fetus, the stiffest charge is assault.
"It's not the same thing as a simple assault. Clearly, it's more serious and more emotionally jarring and it should be treated accordingly," said Rep. Sue Myrick, R-NY.
A substitute amendment proposed by Democrats Zoe Lofgren of California and John Conyers of Michigan failed. That version stiffened penalties on individuals who commit crimes that harm or kill a fetus, but removed Republican language that "unborn children" are people and therefore can be considered separate victims of crimes from the mother.
"The Supreme Court has held that fetuses are not persons within the meaning of the 14th amendment," Conyers said referring to the high court's rulings on abortion over the past three decades. "If enacted, the bill would improperly inject abortion into criminal prosecutions across the country."
"Everyone in the chamber understands what's going on today," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY. "The majority did not bring this bill to the floor to protect pregnant women. The majority brought the measure to the floor today to launch its battle to end a woman's right to choose."
Republicans deny that the bill is an effort to undermine Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the country. Prior to that decision, abortion was regulated by the states.
"This bill is well drafted, it makes a lot of common sense, it is not about the abortion debate," said chief sponsor of the bill Lindsey Graham, R-SC. "It is about America coming together, protecting unborn life when we find consensus. And we should be looking for consensus."
Democrats complained that it was no accident the measure, which Republicans call a crime bill, did not come out of the crime subcommittee, which has appropriate jurisdiction on criminal issues, but came out of the constitution subcommittee, which handles constitutional issues.
"It's tossed there because it's changing the fundamental constitutional law in the most controlling case on abortion in current federal judicial practice," Conyers said.
But Republicans said there are plenty of laws that exist already to protect fetuses and this bill is merely an extension of those to the federal level.
"Twenty-four states have statutes similar to the one being considered today. And if those statutes which protect the rights of unborn children were such an assault on the ... mother's constitutional rights, every one of them would have been struck down by a federal court to the Supreme Court level," argued Jim Sensenbrenner, R-WI.