updated 2/26/2004 2:27:11 PM ET 2004-02-26T19:27:11

The House voted Thursday to subject assailants who injure or kill a pregnant woman and her fetus to prosecution for two separate crimes. The bill would for the first time under federal law give victim’s rights to a fetus.

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The bill, championed by conservative groups, drew opposition from others concerned that conferring new rights on the fetus would undermine abortion rights.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act was approved 254-163 after the House rejected a Democratic-led alternative that would have increased penalties for those attacking a pregnant woman but continued to regard the offense as perpetrated on one victim.

“That little unborn child is intrinsically precious and valuable and deserving of standing in the law and protection,” argued Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.

Senate passage less certain
The legislation now must be taken up by the Senate, where abortion rights forces are stronger and passage is more uncertain.

President Bush has promoted the bill, an election-year priority for his conservative base.

Supporters said Americans were solidly behind making an attack on a pregnant woman subject to two crimes.

Criminal law, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., “is an expression of society’s values,” and anything less than making a woman and the unborn child separate victims “does not resonate with society’s sense of justice.”

But Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Republicans were opting for an election-year abortion issue instead of backing a less controversial approach that would make attacks on pregnant women a single, but more serious crime. “Real people are suffering real harm while this House has played abortion politics instead of acting to punish truly barbaric crimes.”

29 states allow
Backers said the measure was needed to bring federal law in line with 29 states where those who attack pregnant women can be charged with two crimes when the fetus is harmed, including murder.

One of those states is California, where Scott Peterson is on trial for the murder of his wife Laci and her unborn boy, Conner. The bill has also been designated Laci and Conner’s Law.

The Democratic-led opposition, however, says the real aim of the legislation is to undermine abortion rights by giving the unborn the same legal rights as the born. They charged that abortion politics was taking precedence over the need to protect abused women.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said it would affect a woman’s reproductive rights. It “is not about women, and it is not about children. It’s about politics.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., offered an alternative that would increase penalties for attacks leading to the interruption of a pregnancy but would not confer separate legal rights to the fetus. It was defeated, 229-186.

The White House, in a statement, said it opposed such an amendment but voiced strong support for the base bill.

The House passed similar bills in 1999 and 2001. The bill again faces an uphill fight in the Senate with its stronger abortion rights forces. The Senate did not take up the two previous House bills.

Specific crimes
The legislation would apply only to attacks on women that qualify as federal offenses. Those would include such crimes as terrorist attacks, bank robberies, drug trafficking or assaults on federal land.

The sponsors of the bill, led by Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Pa., said they were not out to undermine abortion rights and their bill specifically precludes from prosecution those who perform legal abortions.

“This bill is not about the debate over the sanctity of human life. This bill is just about justice,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.

Groups on both sides of the abortion issue have weighed in heavily on the bill.

The National Right to Life Committee urged its supporters to lobby for the legislation and carried on its Web page a 2003 e-mail from Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. John Kerry voicing opposition to a Senate version.

NARAL Pro-Choice America said Congress must do more to protect pregnant women from violence but said the unborn victims bill was a “deceptive attempt to erode Roe v. Wade,” the Supreme Court decision affirming a woman’s right to end a pregnancy.

The legislation defines “unborn child” as “a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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