WASHINGTON — Accompanied by grieving families, President Bush on Thursday signed into law new protections for the unborn that for the first time make it a separate federal crime to harm a fetus during an assault on the mother.
"If the crime is murder and the unborn child's life ends, justice demands a full accounting under the law," Bush said before signing the measure, a major priority for many of the president's most loyal political supporters. "The suffering of two victims can never equal only one offense."
Abortion-rights proponents, meanwhile, called the measure an assault on reproductive freedom because it represents the first recognition of federal legal rights for an embryo or fetus as a person separate from the woman.
An exuberant audience of abortion foes cheered the president during his remarks, while a few of the family members who shared the East Room stage wiped away tears. Included in the group were the mother and stepfather of California murder victim Laci Peterson, who was eight months pregnant when she died in December 2002 in a highly publicized case.
Bush devoted a large share of his speech to the loss of "a beautiful young woman who was joyfully awaiting the arrival of a new son." Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, and stepfather, Ron Grantski, looked on.
"All who knew Laci Peterson have mourned two deaths. And the law cannot look away and pretend there was just one," Bush said.
The president met privately with the family members beforehand.
But the new law applies only to harm to a fetus while a federal crime, such as a terrorist attack or drug-related shooting, is being committed against the pregnant mother.
The legislation defines an "unborn child" as a child in utero "any stage of development."
Over two dozen states have similar laws, including California where Peterson's husband, Scott, is being tried on double murder charges and could face the death penalty if convicted.
People on both sides of the fetal rights and abortion issues have said the new law, which passed by a 245-163 vote in the House and a 61-38 vote in the Senate, will have far-reaching consequences.
Abortion opponents welcomed it.
"Today marks a tremendous victory for the pro-life movement," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "We are now one step closer to rebuilding a culture of life, where every child born and unborn is given the protections they so clearly deserve."
Opponents saw a blow against women's legal choices including abortion.
"There is little doubt that this law is a thinly veiled attempt to create fetal rights," said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The Bush White House is more interested in servicing their anti-choice political base than taking meaningful steps to protect women from violence and protect our constitutional rights," said Ann Lewis, national chair of the Democratic Party's women's vote center.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Bush's presumptive opponent in this fall's election voted against the bill.
Bush has taken several actions that have pleased anti-abortion advocates.
Previously, 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 also has barred U.S. money from international groups that support abortion, including with their own money, through direct services, counseling or lobbying activities. And 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."