WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday approved legislation making it a separate offense to harm the fetus in a federal crime committed against a pregnant woman, sending the measure to President Bush for his signature.
Opponents denounced the proposal, adopted on a vote of 61-38, as an effort to undermine the constitutional right to abortion by recognizing the fetus as a person. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, both R-Utah, voted in favor of the bill. The House passed the measure on Feb. 26 by a vote of 254-163.
The Senate's action was the second major victory in the Republican controlled Congress for the anti-abortion movement, which has sought this legislation since 1999. Last November, President Bush signed into law a ban on the procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion. Bush strongly supported the latest legislation, referred to as the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, voted against the measure and was criticized on Thursday by family members of crime victims on hand for the debate.
Both sides anticipate such issues will loom large this fall in a polarized presidential election, where the opposing campaigns will seek to galvanize their core supporters by highlighting stark differences on social concerns.
In a statement issued on Thursday night, Bush said, "Pregnant women who have been harmed by violence, and their families, know that there are two victims — the mother and the unborn child — and both victims should be protected by federal law."
Arguing for approval of the measure, its Senate sponsors listed a series of high-profile crimes like the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, and said their sole objective was to establish in criminal law the principle that a fetus injured in an assault was just as much a victim of the crime as the expectant mother.
"It's as simple as that," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, the chief Senate author. "This bill recognizes that when someone attacks and harms a mother and her unborn child, that attack does, in fact, result in two separate victims."
Among those urging passage, Hatch said Thursday that the issue has been similarly addressed by many states across the country, including Utah, and a federal penalty would further recognize "the unborn child as a victim throughout the entire period of prenatal development. This is only proper and, it seems to me, only just."
Opponents of the proposal, while saying they sympathized with the desire to severely punish anyone who would attack pregnant women, said they were troubled by the definition of the "child in utero" covered under the bill as "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and others said they believed that once that definition was written into federal law, it would ultimately be used as an argument to overturn existing laws protecting abortion rights.
"This will be the first strike against all abortion in the United States of America," said Feinstein. She said a federal statute declaring that life begins at conception could ultimately lead to a court finding that "embryonic stem cell research becomes murder and abortion in the first trimester becomes murder as well."
"That's where this debate is taking us; that's the reason for this bill," she said.
Responding to such arguments, Hatch said, "I do not believe that this bill in any way undermines abortion rights. The bill explicitly says that the federal government cannot prosecute a pregnant woman for having an abortion."
The Senate rejected 50-49 a Feinstein amendment that would have allowed criminals to be charged with a second offense for harming or terminating a woman's pregnancy without granting new legal status to the fetus. Senators also rejected another Democratic amendment that required companies to provide unpaid leave for victims of domestic or sexual violence, a policy that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said was a better way to reduce crimes against women.
"Despite the rhetoric, they are not truly willing to do something about domestic violence," Murray said.
Backers of the measure said that crimes like the murder in California of Peterson had built strong public support for the bill endorsed by the Senate. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., exhibited graphic photographs of pregnant crime victims in making the case for the legislation. The measure had never before reached the full Senate.
The congressional action follows decisions by more than two dozen states to make the fetus a second victim of a crime. A Republican analysis of the legislation said it covered 68 federal crimes of violence like those occurring on federal lands, in drug trafficking and on military bases.
Authors of the bill dismissed the claim that it was a back-door attack on abortion rights, saying the legislation specifically exempts abortions consented to by the woman.
"It's not about abortion," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an original advocate for the bill when he was in the House. "It is about criminals who attack pregnant women."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said court reviews of similar existing state laws have found there is no conflict between the criminal statutes and the existing right to an abortion granted under Roe vs. Wade.
"These criminals are not performing abortions," said Johnson, whose group lobbied on behalf of the legislation.
A leader of the abortion rights movement said that lawmakers who backed the legislation had sided with conservative anti-abortion activists.
"Instead of passing a consensus bill to punish criminals for their horrific acts, the president's allies are taking advantage of this issue to further their campaign to oppose a woman's right to choose," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.