WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday fulfilled a campaign pledge to conservatives by signing his first law of 2004, making it a crime to harm a fetus during a federal crime against a pregnant woman.
Flanked by Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio), the prime sponsor of the measure in the Senate, Mr. Bush signed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, known informally as the Laci and Conner Peterson Act.
Laci Peterson was murdered in California in 2002 while eight months' pregnant with Conner, who also died. Her mother and stepfather and other family members were at the East Room ceremony in the White House yesterday.
Mr. Bush kissed the female members of the Peterson family and several other relatives of pregnant women who were killed and said, "As of today, the law of our nation will acknowledge the plain fact that crimes of violence against a pregnant woman often have two victims,'' Mr. Bush said. "Therefore, in those cases, there are two offenses to be punished."
He also said, "The suffering of two victims can never equal only one offense,'' and he said the new law is important in creating a "culture of life" in America.
Although congressional supporters of the bill, which took five years to clear Congress, declared vehemently that the bill has nothing to do with abortion, passions in both camps have been aroused by the legislation.
Some abortion-rights foes have claimed publicly that this is the first step in giving a fetus new legal rights which, they hope, could lead to outlawing abortion.
That is also the fear of abortion-rights advocates. NARAL Pro-Choice America issued a statement saying that Mr. Bush's intent is to create a precedent that "anti-choice leaders could use to argue for overturning Roe vs. Wade."
The new law passed the House Feb. 26 by a vote of 254-163. The Senate passed the measure March 25 by 62-38.
While Mr. Bush enthusiastically greeted passage, Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, voted against it. Mr. Kerry supported instead an amendment by his colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), which was defeated 50-49, and would have avoided treating an unborn child as a separate person while increasing penalties for attacking a pregnant woman.
Mr. Kerry has said in the past that although the new law exempts performing abortions from prosecution, it would "clearly impact a woman's right to choose to terminate her pregnancy, as that right is set forth in Roe vs. Wade.''
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