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A Ploy in the Abortion War

March 25, 2004

The slaying of young wife and mother-to-be Laci Peterson in 2002 gripped the nation because she was days away from giving birth to a son, already named Conner. California law -- like that in 28 other states -- allows prosecutors to bring separate murder charges in cases where a viable fetus is killed in the course of a violent act. California prosecutors have charged Laci's husband, Scott Peterson, with murdering both his wife and unborn son. He has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.

Federal law, however, doesn't permit double homicide charges in such cases. A simple fix would close this loophole -- if that's all Congress really wanted. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed a federal bill, much like the California law, that would create a second federal offense when an attacker terminates or harms "a pregnancy," as Feinstein generically words it.

Instead, the Senate is likely to vote today on a bill intended largely to score points in the endless, wearying abortion debate. Introduced by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), the proposed Unborn Victims of Violence Act defines "a child ... in utero" as "a member of the species Homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb." In other words, the child exists from the moment of conception. The House passed similar legislation last month. As with nearly every aspect of the abortion debate, Americans are deeply divided on when human life begins. However, courts and most states generally accord more rights to a fetus considered viable outside the womb.

DeWine's bill, S 1019, offers a sweeping declaration that ignores prevailing scientific views and the national legal consensus. True, his bill specifically bars prosecution for abortion. But its effect -- as DeWine intends -- would be to give one side a new legal bullet in the broader abortion wars.

Federal murder charges, such as for killing a postal worker or park ranger, are rare; barely 400 people were prosecuted annually for such crimes in recent years. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn't tally how many pregnant women were victims.

DeWine's bill cynically capitalizes on Laci Peterson's murder to push his definition of personhood into federal law. Feinstein's legislation would bolster punishments for harming pregnant women and their fetuses without turning a simple fix into an ideological circus.

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