Republicans, Democrats Debate Potential Effects of Possible Federal Fetus Homicide Law

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Pointing to the deaths of Laci Peterson (search) and her unborn son, Republicans on Tuesday renewed a push for a federal homicide law that would allow attackers to be punished for harming both a pregnant woman and her fetus (search).

"Under this law, an unborn child is recognized as a legal crime victim, just like any other member of the human race," said Tracy Marciniak of Mosinee, Wis., whose husband attacked her and killed her fetus five days before the delivery date in 1992.

"Please don't tell me that my son was not a real victim of a real crime," said Marciniak, who was attacked before Wisconsin enacted its fetal homicide law (search). "We were both victims, but only I survived."

But Democrats on a House Judiciary subcommittee and their supporters called the legislation a backdoor attack on abortion rights, despite written assurances inside the legislation saying that it can't be used that way. The bill says it would not permit prosecution for any abortion to which a woman consented, or for any act by an expectant mother -- even an illegal act such as drug abuse -- that harmed her fetus.

But "the goal of the act is to create a new cause of action on behalf of the unborn and further a specific political agenda," said Juley Fulcher, the public policy director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "The result is that the crime committed against a pregnant woman is no longer about the woman victimized by violence. Instead, the focus often will be shifted to the impact of that crime on the unborn embryo or fetus."

Fifteen states have laws recognizing unborn children as victims, and 13 states have partial coverage, said National Right to Life, an anti-abortion group. The federal government does not have any laws on that issue but the White House has called on Congress to pass the legislation.

The House passed it in 2001, but the Senate never took up the bill.

Supporters of the legislation have nicknamed the bill "Laci and Conner's law" after the pregnant Modesto, Calif., woman who disappeared last Christmas Eve. Her husband. Scott Peterson, is charged with murdering his wife and their unborn child. California has a law allowing for such prosecution.

The bill being offered in Congress probably would not apply in the Peterson case and would not have helped the Marciniak prosecution either. The legislation would only apply to various federal crimes, including kidnapping across state lines, drug-related drive-by shootings, and assaults occurring on federal property.

The legislation will "ensure that criminals who commit violent acts against pregnant women are justly punished for injuring or killing unborn children, while affirmatively acknowledging to grieving family members that their deceased loved ones are recognized under the law," said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.

Democrats said they would offer an alternative to the bill that would not give legal status to unborn children. They said that would avoid turning the legislation into an abortion rights debate. As written, the Republican-sponsored bill would be perceived as an attack on Roe v. Wade, Democrats said.

"We should not have any illusions about the purpose of this bill," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.