It isn’t a child yet

By the

May 3, 2001

Last Thursday, with support from the Bush White House, Representatives in the House passed a bill granting legal protection to the human fetus by establishing new criminal penalties for anyone who injures or harms a fetus while committing another federal offense. The bill is known as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Representative Henry J. Hyde, Republican of Illinois is pushing for similar legislative action in the Senate.

Supporters of the bill, mainly Republicans, said it would protect “unborn children” against assaults and other acts of violence. Ultimately, it undermines abortion rights by granting legal status to the fetus at all stages of development. The bill is clearly a back-door attack on Roe vs. Wade.

The bill protects the “unborn child,” defined as “a member of the species Homo Sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.” The Supreme Court has never recognized an unborn child as having legal status. The act amends the federal and military criminal code and would, for the first time under federal law, recognize a zygote, blastocyst, embryo or fetus as a “person,” with rights separate from and equal to those of a woman. With the act, conservatives essentially establish two sets of constitutional rights.

Currently, federal homicide statutes cover only the killing of a human being (a person who has been born). To identify the fetus as a separate and distinct victim of crime is unprecedented. Under the bill a person who injures or kills a fetus in the course of committing any of 68 federal crimes could be convicted of a separate crime against the fetus. The penalties would be the same as the punishment that could have been imposed if the pregnant woman had suffered the injury inflicted on the fetus.

Under the bill, the accused may be prosecuted for injuring or killing a fetus regardless of whether he or she knew the woman was pregnant. Prosecutors would not have to show that the defendant intended to cause the death or injury of the fetus. The act is part of an effort to capitalize on the anti-choice presidency of George W. Bush. Anti-choice lawmakers know they have a chance to enact sweeping restrictions on choice, laying the groundwork for a challenge to Roe. Unfortunately for American women, anti-choice conservatives have an ally in President Bush. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act does nothing to protect women from violence. It explicitly ignores the fact that an attack on a pregnancy is inherently an attack on the woman.

It might be appropriate to increase punishment for violence against pregnant women. However, legislators should not recognize the fetus as a separate person, a crime victim with rights distinct from those of the pregnant woman.

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