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Stampeding for a 'Connor Peterson Law'

Rights for the unborn require full deliberation.

May 30, 2003|Marc Cooper | Marc Cooper, Nation magazine contributing editor and L.A. Weekly columnist, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

No one can blame the relatives of a murder victim for supporting legislation that would toughen existing laws. Nor should we be surprised that some politicians would take advantage of a high-profile crime to advance their own partisan advantage. Politics, as they say, ain't beanbag.

What is unacceptable is that the supposedly neutral news media should become a willing partner in such a move.

Congressional conservatives, including Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), are capitalizing on the public anger over the killing of Laci Peterson and her fetus, and they're trying to fast-track the passage of a bill originally dubbed the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act." Reportedly at the Peterson family's request, but with a boost from much of the electronic media, it has now been renamed "Laci and Connor's Law." Who would dare vote against Laci and little Connor?

Since the first days of coverage of the Christmas Eve disappearance of Peterson -- and in an even more intense manner since her body and that of her unborn son washed ashore -- many in the electronic media (in particular the cable channels) have routinely referred to the victims as "Laci and Connor."

As horrific as this crime is, we must clearly distinguish between the emotional and moral issues and the legal aspects of this case. The 8-month-old fetus that Peterson was carrying at the time of her death was not yet legally a person. Initial and more ethical news reports said Peterson and her husband had plans to name the baby Connor. Or maybe Conner. They weren't sure. And to be a stickler about this, there were no guarantees that this child, like any child, would survive childbirth.

These subtleties are of zero concern to the ratings-hungry television managers. Within days Connor -- as he was christened by the media -- became a full-blown person. The modifier "unborn" was subtly dropped from the coverage.

Let it be clearly stated that the killing of this fetus is just as much a crime and a tragedy as killing a born child. In California and 26 other states, an act of violence that results in the death of an unborn child can already be charged as murder.

But that wasn't enough for some. Partisan political forces are steaming ahead to promote Connor and all other unborn children to full legal personhood, and far too much of the media is following slavishly in its wake. Apart from the proposed "Laci and Connor Act," the Texas Legislature has expedited an even more sweeping bill that would grant the unborn an unprecedented amount of rights. Opponents contend that, at worst, such laws are aimed at eventually repealing abortion rights. At best, they say, giving the unborn legal personhood would create a nightmarish tangle of inheritance, paternity and medical liability responsibilities.

Antiabortion forces have the right to fight for their agenda. But whatever our personal views, we should be careful to not be stampeded by emotion-driven coverage into passing laws we will later regret. Complicated legislation that speaks to central constitutional issues requires thoughtful and level-headed debate and scrutiny.

The consequences of doing otherwise are all around us. The obsessive coverage of the Polly Klaas killing led to the passage of draconian "three strikes" legislation -- a measure whose unintended consequences have been so deleterious that even hard-line prosecutors are now critical of it. Similarly, the well-intended Megan's Law has resulted in the persecution of those who have already paid their debt to society. And the new Amber alert promises to spend millions of scant taxpayer dollars for little return in public safety.

The family in this case deserves our compassion and sympathy. There is no need to sully the memory of Laci Peterson and her unborn son with cheap media tricks.

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