Friday, March 16, 2001

Hurting fetus may become federal crime

Chabot's panel holds hearing on 'hole' in law

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — The scenario: An interstate kidnapping goes awry. The victim, a pregnant woman, is beaten and dumped on the side of a highway. She survives but suffers a miscarriage.

        Federal prosecutors could charge the assailants with kidnapping and assault but, unlike under many state laws, could not charge them with a federal crime for destroying a fetus.

        Conservative Republicans in Congress want to change federal and military law to make it a separate offense to injure or destroy a fetus during a crime. Abortion rights and women's groups believe the move is another attempt to federally recognize a fetus as a child and, eventually, undermine a woman's right to an abortion.

        “There is a hole in criminal law,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, which held a hearing on the issue Thursday. “This makes people come face to face with the question of when a child is considered a child.”

        Several states, including Ohio, have homicide laws against destroying a fetus at any time during prenatal growth. Other states have laws that cover the fetus during the later stages of development or separate penalties for injuring or damaging a fetus during a crime.

        The federal legislation would not require prosecutors to prove that a defendant knew the victim was pregnant or intended to harm the fetus. The proposed law would specifically exempt prosecution of women seeking an abortion or medical treatment.

        “You don't have to know everything about somebody, you just have to know you're not supposed to hurt them,” said Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the bill's sponsor in the House. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, is the sponsor in the Senate.

        An identical bill passed the House in 1999 but did not advance in the Senate. The bill would have encountered an almost certain veto from President Clinton, but Republicans are hopeful that President Bush will embrace it if it moves out of Congress.

        In his first few days in office, Mr. Bush, who is opposed to abortion in most cases, restored a ban on federal aid for international family planning groups that discuss abortion and indicated his administration would take a critical look at funding for fetal-tissue research.

        Juley Fulcher, the public policy director for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said Congress could better protect women and their children if it fully funded the Violence Against Women Act, which it said has led in part to a 21 percent decline in domestic violence over the past six years.

        The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy believe the proposed law would validate the concept of “fetal rights” that could be applied to other sections of federal law.

        “The long-term public health implications of such a policy would be devastating for victims of domestic violence and all women,” Ms. Fulcher said.

        Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., asked whether the bill was a “transparent attempt to legitimize a fetus as a person with rights and interests equal to the mother.”

        The National Right to Life Committee, however, pointed out that the House voted last July for a bill that would have prevented federal and state governments from executing pregnant women on death row.


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