A bill in the General Assembly is causing an internal debate for some lawmakers, forcing them to decide between protecting women from domestic violence and upholding key precedents in reproductive law.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act (search) would allow prosecutors to charge an assailant with a crime against a fetus if an attack on a pregnant woman resulted in harm or death of the child she was carrying. The bill exempts a legal provider of abortion, or an injury induced by the mother.

The bill resulted from the highly-publicized murder of Laci Peterson (search), a California woman who was eight months pregnant at her death. California is one of 29 states that has a fetus protection law, and it was used by the prosecution in that case.

The bill won support for its purpose, but alienated pro-choice legislators with its language.

A paragraph in the bill uses the term "unborn child" -- defined as an unborn human being who is conceived, but not yet completely born.

The issue is one decideed Thursday on the federal level, when the Senate passed a federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which would enable government to prosecute as a double-victim crime any harm to a mother and fetus that occurs as the result of a federal crime, such as a terrorist attack or a drug-related shooting.

"My problem with the bill is that it puts on the books that a fetus is an unborn child," said Democratic Delegate Marilyn Goldwater.

Goldwater said she would support a bill that charged a person for assailing a woman to cause a miscarriage.

Opponents call the wording a start down a slippery slope to conveying legal rights to embryos and fetuses.

"I can see a sleight of hand," said Democratic state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky. "This went from being a fertilized egg, to being a fetus, to being an unborn child."

"We're trying to dress it up to make it seem like it is not an attack on mothers, on women and on the right to choose, but it is," said Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Democrat.

But in a House voting session Friday, proponents say it is this right that is the crux of their bill.

"Roe v. Wade (searchgave women the right to choose, and this woman is certainly not going to have the right to choose if some third-party assailant destroys her child," said Republican Delegate Donald B. Elliot.

The primary danger to women across the nation is homicide, and husbands and boyfriends who violently assault their pregnant wives should walk away with more than just assault, said Republican Delegate Joseph C. Boteler III.

The Senate version of the bill passed the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Monday, 7-4. The House bill was knocked down Thursday 13-11 in the House Health and Government Operations Committee.

The Senate version hit the floor Wednesday and debate continued Thursday, when an amendment was introduced to make the law applicable after the woman is 20 weeks pregnant. Further amendments were expected Friday.