WASHINGTON (BP)–The murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son has renewed a national debate over whether laws should protect unborn children who are victims of violent crimes.
Currently, 26 states have laws granting protection to unborn children injured or killed during an assault on the mother. Fourteen of those states grant protection during the entire pregnancy, while 12 others — including California — only protect the unborn child in later stages, according to the National Right to Life Committee.
California’s law allowed the state to charge accused murderer Scott Peterson — Laci Peterson’s husband — with a double homicide.
But there is no national law. A bill in Congress — the Unborn Victims of Violence Act — would make it a federal crime to injure or kill an unborn child when the mother is assaulted on federal property or during a federal crime. If passed, a person killing a pregnant woman during a federal crime would face two separate charges.
“[Unborn Victims of Violence, or UVV] laws recognize the obvious — namely, that harm to unborn human beings is real harm and that those who perpetrate violence should be held accountable,” said C. Ben Mitchel1, a consultant to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a bioethics and contemporary culture professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.
“These laws originate deep in our intuitions. Our sense of justice requires that we pass UVV laws. It’s the right thing to do.”
The bill does not apply to abortions, and it would not supersede state laws — meaning that a non-federal crime committed in a state without a fetal homicide law would be unaffected.
But the bill’s language protects an unborn child “at any stage of development,” something that laws in only 14 states do.
The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is one instance in which a federal law would have made a difference. Although the state does not have a fetal homicide law, an Oklahoma court ruling has allowed local prosecutors to press forward in charging bombing conspirator Terry Nichols with the murder of an unborn child.
But because the court ruled that unborn children in the first few weeks of development aren’t protected — the court pointed to state abortion laws — Nichols will avoid two additional charges, according to the Associated Press. Three pregnant women died in the bombing, but only one had a child considered viable by the court.
The bill in Congress would have allowed federal prosecutors to charge Nichols and Timothy McVeigh with the death of all three unborn children.
Similar bills passed the House of Representatives in 1999 and 2001 but were not acted on by the Senate. The Senate sponsor of the 2003 bill is Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio. There are nine cosponsors; the bill is currently in the Judiciary Committee.
“He made it a legislative priority … to work on this bill, to introduce it and then to see it through,” DeWine spokeswoman Amanda Flaig told Baptist Press. “… With the increase in tension since Laci Peterson’s murder, we are working as hard as ever on this bill.”
Republican leaders have “indicated that they want to see” the bill moved, Flaig added. “Now it’s a matter of figuring out how to move it.”
When introducing the bill in January, DeWine told colleagues it was a “simple step” that can have a “dramatic effect.”
“The fact is that it is just plain wrong that our federal government does absolutely nothing to criminalize violent acts against unborn children,” he said.
President Bush is pushing for passage of the bill. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush believes that “when an unborn child is injured or killed during the commission of a crime of violence,” the law should recognize that the crime “has two victims.”
Unlike the Oklahoma City case, occasionally a crime’s intended target is solely the unborn baby. During Senate testimony three years ago, an Arkansas woman told how she became pregnant with her boyfriend, who then tried to have the unborn child killed. One day before her due date, she and her boyfriend went to his house, where she was assaulted by three masked men. Demanding money, one of them said, “Your baby is dying tonight.” She was kicked repeatedly in the stomach.
She was rushed to the hospital, where she discovered that her unborn daughter had been killed. It was later discovered that her boyfriend had hired the men to fake a robbery and kill the child.
“I lost a part of me — a child that I was so looking forward to having,” she told senators.
The men were convicted under Arkansas’ fetal homicide law — laws that are needed in all 50 states and at the federal level, Mitchell said.
But the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League — which now calls itself “NARAL Pro-Choice America” — opposes the bill currently in Congress, saying that it “threatens to upset the careful balance struck by” Roe v. Wade. The bill “equates zygotes, embryos and fetuses with people for legal purposes, putting UVVA in tension with Roe v. Wade,” a statement on its website said.
Stances like NARAL’s end up hurting women, Mitchell said.
“Sadly, pro-abortion advocates are so ideologically and politically driven that they will wink at violence against women and their children in the name of protecting abortion rights,” Mitchell said.
“Without UVV laws, women are doubly victimized. Both they themselves and their offspring are harmed or killed. Only the most callous ideologue could allow women and their children to suffer for political purposes.”
A memorial service for Laci Peterson and her unborn son will be held at First Baptist of Modesto, Calif., May 4.
The Senate bill is S-146.