WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to make it a federal crime to harm a fetus during an assault on its mother, urging action on behalf of “unborn victims.” Abortion rights advocates decried the bill as a foot in the door toward legal recognition of fetuses as people.
After a lengthy and sometimes testy debate that included pictures of a woman holding her stillborn child who died after she was assaulted, the House passed the bill 252-172, almost identical to the 254-172 margin by which it was passed a year ago.
Unlike last year, this bill has the support of the White House and its new occupant. Former President Clinton had promised to veto it if it ever reached him. It didn’t, largely because there was little support for it in the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee, now evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, has yet to set a hearing on the issue this year.
The White House said this week, “The administration supports protection for unborn children and therefore supports House passage.”
House supporters characterized the bill as an anti-crime measure, not an abortion issue.“The law must not look upon a violent criminal’s unborn victims with an indifferent eye,” said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas. “Every young life must be acknowledged. And every young life must be protected from predatory criminals.”
DeLay assailed a Democratic amendment that would have stiffened penalties for harming a pregnant woman but not made harming a fetus a separate crime. “Life and death should not be subsumed beneath a semantic fog,” he said.
But opponents called the measure a veiled attempt by conservatives to chip away at abortion rights guaranteed in the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
“This would be the first time in the federal legal system that we would begin to recognize a fertilized egg, a zygote, an embryo or a fetus,” said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. “That’s what the bill is trying to do. No sneaking around today, fellas.”
Rep. Nancy Johnson, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, warned her colleagues that the consequences of passing the bill would be extraordinary.
“What happens if a woman has a miscarriage because she worked too hard or she didn’t take care of herself? That may not be in this bill but, let me tell you, it’s the next one down the road,” she said.
The bill would apply only to crimes in federal jurisdiction, but about half the states have similar laws. The Supreme Court in 1989 upheld Missouri’s version, one of the broadest, which describes an “unborn child” at any stage of prenatal development as a person.
“Today is about bringing the country together to put people in jail who deserve to go,” said Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. , the bill’s author.
A related law in North Carolina was used earlier this year to convict former Carolina Panthers football player Rae Carruth on charges of conspiracy and use of an instrument — a gun — with the intent of destroying an unborn child in the slaying of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams.
Adams was ambushed and shot in her car. The child — a boy — was delivered by emergency Caesarean section and is being raised by Adams’ mother. Family members have said the child has developmental problems and cerebral palsy.
One House member, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., voted present. Robyn Wheeler, his spokeswoman, said he voted present because he believes the bill was poorly written and would eventually erode a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.
On the Net:
The bill, H.R. 503, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov