updated 4/1/2004 4:33:39 PM ET 2004-04-01T21:33:39

President Bush, eager to hand another victory to the social conservatives who make up his most loyal base of political support, signed legislation Thursday to expand the legal rights of the unborn. “The suffering of two victims can never equal only one offense,” Bush said.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act makes it a crime to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman. Bush signed the bill, which took five years to get through Congress, in an ornate ceremony in the Rose Garden attended by anti-abortion and victims rights activists, as well as the family of Laci Peterson, the murdered California woman for whom the legislation was named.

Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, were the victims in highly publicized murder case in California. California, one of 29 states with an unborn victims law, is trying Peterson’s husband, Scott, on double murder charges.

Bush was joined on stage by Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, and her stepfather, Ron Grantski.

“This little soul never saw light, but he is loved and he is remembered,” the president said. “All who knew Laci Peterson have mourned two deaths, and the law cannot look away and pretend there was just one.”

People on both sides of the fetal rights and abortion issue have said the new law will have far-reaching consequences.

Abortion opponents welcome it as a step toward more sweeping protections for the unborn, while abortion-rights proponents say the measure represents the first recognition in federal law of an embryo or fetus as a person separate from the woman.

Presidential issue
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Bush’s opponent in this fall’s election, voted against the bill.

Bush has said he does not believe the country is ready to completely ban abortions; he opposes them except in cases of rape or incest or when pregnancy endangers a woman’s life. That position has become a standard line in most of his speeches.

“We stand for a culture of life in which every person counts and every person matters. We will not stand for the treatment of any life as a commodity to be experimented upon, exploited or cloned,” the president told Republican donors to his campaign at a fund-raiser Tuesday night in Washington.

The measure is limited in scope, applying only to harm to a fetus when a federal crime, such as a terrorist attack or a drug-related shooting, is being committed against the pregnant mother. 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.”

A number of states have similar laws.

Related actions
As president, Bush has taken several earlier actions that have pleased anti-abortion advocates:

  • As one of the first acts of his presidency, he reinstated the “Mexico City policy,” which bars U.S. money from international groups that support abortion, even with their own money, through direct services, counseling or lobbying activities.
  • He has signed legislation that bans certain late-term abortions and that amends legal definitions of “person,” “human being,” “child” and “individual” to include any fetus that survives an abortion.
  • He has increased federal support for abstinence education, adoption and crisis pregnancy programs, placed severe restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research to only a few existing cell lines and extended state health coverage to “unborn children.”

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