WASHINGTON — Spurred by the killing of Laci Peterson and her unborn child, the Senate on Thursday sent to President Bush a bill that would make it a separate crime to harm a fetus during the commission of a violent federal crime against a pregnant woman.
The 61-38 Senate vote to approve the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, following House passage last month, came after a debate in which abortion became an issue. Abortion rights advocates view the bill as a disguised effort to overturn a woman's right to an abortion, saying it treats the fetus as a legal entity separate from the pregnant mother.
The bill's supporters contended that it was an anti-crime measure. "This bill is about simple justice," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), the bill's chief sponsor.
Bush, who has pledged to sign the bill, applauded its passage.
"We must continue to build a culture of life in our country, a compassionate society in which every child is welcomed in life and protected by law," he said in a statement Thursday evening.
Earlier efforts to pass the bill had stalled, but it gained new momentum after national attention focused on the case of Peterson, who was eight months pregnant when she disappeared from her Modesto home in 2002. Last April, Peterson's remains and those of her unborn son washed ashore in San Francisco Bay.
The bill became known as "Laci and Conner's Law."
"The best way to explain this bill is through a real-life incident that most Americans relate to," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), joined this week on Capitol Hill by Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, in pushing for the bill's passage.
The measure also is emerging as an election-year issue.
Bush, as he seeks to shore up his support from social conservatives, is expected to highlight the measure on the campaign trail, along with his signing last year of a measure banning a procedure critics call "partial birth" abortion.
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, interrupted his campaign to return to vote in favor of an alternative measure favored by abortion rights advocates.
The alternative, introduced by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would have allowed prosecutors to "double charge" a defendant for a crime against a woman that ended a pregnancy without addressing the hot-button issue of when life began inside the womb.
But the measure was defeated in the Republican-controlled chamber, 50-49, on a vote largely along party lines.
When "Laci and Conner's Law" came up for a final vote, Kerry was among 35 Democrats, two Republicans and one independent who opposed it. Voting for the measure were 48 Republicans and 13 Democrats.
More than half the states, including California, have laws that make it a separate crime to harm a fetus.
Laci's husband, Scott, has been charged in state court with killing his wife and unborn child. He has pleaded not guilty.
Under a 1970 California law, prosecutors can file murder charges for the killing of a fetus beyond the embryonic stage -- defined by case law as seven to eight weeks after fertilization, according to the state attorney general's office.
The federal legislation would make it a separate crime to injure or kill a fetus -- "at any stage of development" -- during the commission of 68 federal crimes, such as kidnapping across state lines, drug-related drive-by shootings, interstate stalking and assaults on federal property.
Feinstein, though calling for stiff punishment for criminals who assault pregnant women, argued that the Senate-approved measure could undermine a woman's right to choose because it would have the "effect of defining life as beginning at conception."
"Anyone who is pro-choice cannot vote for this bill without the expectation that they are creating the first legal bridge to do in Roe vs. Wade," she warned, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established, under the Constitution's right to privacy, a woman's right to seek an abortion if the fetus cannot live on its own.
"The bill covers children that aren't children, that are a day old in the womb," she said. "Once you give an embryo at the point of conception all of the legal rights of a human being ... you've created the legal case to go against Roe vs. Wade."
Joining her in opposing the bill was fellow California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer, who accused the bill's sponsors of seeking to inject a "political agenda into the criminal justice system."
The bill's supporters said the measure would not apply to an abortion conducted with a woman's consent or any action a woman took that harmed her fetus, such as abusing drugs.