WASHINGTON - The Senate voted 61-38 yesterday to make the killing or injuring of a fetus a federal crime, rejecting arguments that this would undermine a woman's right to choose to have an abortion.
President Bush has said he will sign the measure, which passed the House last month. Formally named the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, the measure has been dubbed the "Laci and Conner's Law" after Laci Peterson and her unborn son, whose slayings are the focus of a much-publicized trial in California.
Sen. Mike DeWine (R, Ohio) was the main sponsor of the bill.
Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) voted for the measure, while both of Michigan's Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, voted against it, as did Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Senate approval of the bill marked the end of a five-year battle by abortion opponents. It is the second victory in two years for abortion opponents, who persuaded a congressional majority last year to pass a ban against so-called "partial birth" abortions. The ban has since been challenged in the courts by abortion-rights groups.
Under Mr. DeWine's bill, anyone who injures or kills a pregnant woman and her fetus could be charged with two separate crimes because the fetus - for the first time in federal
law - would be given victim's rights.
"It's really a bill about simple justice,'' Mr. DeWine said during the often passionate, daylong debate on the measure. "This bill recognizes that there are two victims. There is the mother ... and there is the unborn child. It's as simple as that."
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D, Calif.) contended that the bill was the first step in removing women's right to choose an abortion, particularly in the early months of a pregnancy.
"It would clearly establish in criminal law, for the first time in history, that life begins at the moment of conception," Ms. Feinstein said.
The key vote on the DeWine bill occurred midway through the debate when the Senate rejected, 50-49, an amendment offered by Ms. Feinstein. Her amendment would have increased penalties for those who injure or kill a pregnant woman but maintained that such an attack is a single-victim crime.
Ms. Feinstein stressed that her amendment was identical to Mr. DeWine's bill with one important difference: "We do not attempt to place into law a definition that life begins at conception. Our amendment achieves the same law enforcement goals [as the DeWine bill] without injecting the debate over a women's right to choose into the equation."
She pointed to statements by abortion opponents in which they outline an effort to pass laws stating that life begins at conception as a way for laying the groundwork to overturn the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights.
Mr. DeWine, however, rejected the idea that his bill was a back-door attack on abortion rights. "This bill has nothing to do with abortion. We have explicitly exempted abortion in this bill."
He urged lawmakers to defeat Ms. Feinstein's amendment, saying "it doesn't recognize a second victim. It twists reality. People intuitively know that there is a victim besides the mother in these cases."
The Senate also debated an amendment that would have required employers to give unpaid leave to women who are the victims of domestic violence. Under the amendment, offered by Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), states would have been required to pay unemployment benefits to such victims.
"We've spent a long time today talking about punishing those who abuse and kill women. Now it's time to see who is serious about preventing abuse in the first place," Ms. Murray said.
While stressing that he was sympathetic to the intent of Murray's amendment, Mr. DeWine urged his colleagues to vote against it. "The passage of this amendment would kill the bill," he contended.
In the end, no vote was taken on the Murray amendment.
Twenty-nine states, including Ohio and Michigan, already have laws protecting unborn victims of violence by making the injury or death of a pregnant woman two separate crimes. But there is no such federal law.
The DeWine bill would cover 68 federal crimes, including crimes committed on a military base and terrorist attacks.
Leaders of abortion-rights groups, who had delivered more than 130,000 petitions against the DeWine bill to lawmakers earlier this week, expressed anger over the Senate vote.
"There's no disagreement on the horrific nature of violent crimes against a pregnant woman that harm or end her pregnancy, and the need for harsher penalties against those who commit such terrible acts," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"[But] the anti-choice movement, from President Bush on down, has insisted on using the issue of punishing violence that harms or ends a pregnancy as cover for its campaign to undermine a woman's right to choose."
But Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said the DeWine bill addressed a separate issue related to the right to life.
During the debate over the DeWine bill, supporters of the legislation recounted the horrific stories of pregnant women who had been assaulted or killed and seen their unborn children die.
"The issue is how many victims there are," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) "Do we recognize the loss of the child in the womb? That life was very real, and then taken away. It has nothing to do with abortion. Abortion is specifically excluded from this legislation," he added.
However, Ms. Feinstein said, "The march to eliminate Roe vs. Wade is on, and it's in this bill."
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The Senate voted 61-38 yesterday to make the killing or injuring of a fetus a federal crime, rejecting arguments that this would undermine a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. President Bush has said he will sign the measure, which passed the House last month.