In a major win for social conservatives, Congress is sending to the president legislation that would expand the legal rights of the unborn by making it a separate crime to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act (search) cleared the Senate on a 61-38 vote Thursday, a month after the House passed the bill and five years after conservatives first tried to move the legislation through Congress.

The measure is limited in scope, applying only to harm to a fetus while a federal crime is being committed against the pregnant mother, such as terrorist attacks, drug-related shootings or attacks on federal lands or military bases. But proponents on both sides of the fetal rights and abortion issue saw far-reaching consequences.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council (search), said that with the president's signature, "our nation will be one giant step closer to rebuilding a culture of life, where every child, born and unborn, is given the protections they so clearly deserve." President Bush has urged Congress to send a bill to his desk.

But the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America (search), Kate Michelman, said it would be the first time ever in federal law that an embryo or fetus is recognized as a distinct person, separate from the woman. "Much of this is preparing for the day the Supreme Court has a majority that will overrule Roe v. Wade," the 1973 Supreme Court decision affirming a woman's right to end a pregnancy.

The legislation earlier in the day came within one vote of failing, when the Senate voted 50-49 to defeat an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Her provision would have increased penalties for attacks on pregnant women, including bringing murder charges against an assailant whose attack results in the termination of a pregnancy.

But the proposal also focused on the harm to the pregnancy rather than attempting to determine when life begins.

"Clearly, there is a concerted effort to codify in law the legal recognition that life begins at conception," she said. "If we allow that to happen today, or in any other law, we put the right to choose squarely at risk."

The legislation defines an "unborn child" as a child in utero, which it says "means a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Bush's opponent this fall, interrupted his campaign schedule to vote yes on the amendment. He voted no on final passage.

Supporters of the legislation insisted it had nothing to do with abortion rights, and cited language in the bill that specifically states that lawful abortions are not subject to prosecution.

"It does not affect abortion rights whatsoever," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, a chief sponsor. "This bill recognizes that there are two victims," he added. Americans, he said, "intuitively know that there is a victim besides the mother."

Supporters of the bill have named it after Laci Peterson and her unborn child, Conner, victims in a highly publicized murder case in California. She was eight months pregnant when she disappeared in December 2002. Police found the bodies of her and the baby months later in the San Francisco Bay.

California, one of 29 states with an unborn victims law, is trying Peterson's husband, Scott, on double murder charges.

Laci Peterson's stepfather, Ron Grantski, said at a Capitol Hill news conference that he and Laci's mother had received several hundred thousand sympathy cards and "they all mourned our loss of Laci and Conner — not Laci and the fetus."