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House Approves “Unborn Victims of Violence Act”

Marking the first vote on a reproductive health issue, the House on April 26 voted 252-172 to pass legislation (H.R. 503) dealing with fetal protection. Sponsored by Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the bill would create a separate offense if an individual kills or injures an “unborn child” while committing a federal crime against a pregnant woman. Abortion providers and women who consent to have an abortion would be exempt from prosecution.

Highly partisan debate characterized the nearly four-hour long discussion of the bill. Proponents of H.R. 503 argued that the measure was needed to close a loophole in federal law and would serve to further protect women from violence. Opponents countered that H.R. 503 was a “back-door” attempt to erode Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

“Let me tell my colleagues why this bill was introduced,” stated Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-VA). “Currently, under Federal law, if a criminal assaults or kills a woman who is pregnant and thereby causes the death or injury to that unborn child, the criminal faces no consequences for taking or injuring this unborn life,” she said, adding: “That is why this bill is introduced, and that is why it is a tragedy that this worthwhile piece of legislation is being muddled in abortion politics by those who instinctively reject any bill that deals with the child in the womb.”

Arguing against the bill, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) countered, “This legislation is truly extraordinary, because it changes the fundamental concept of law that has governed America since its founding. What is radical about this bill is not that it wants to punish people who assault pregnant women; I want to do that, too. What is radical about this bill is that for the first time under our laws, it will define fetal personhood. The consequences are going to be extraordinary.”

Stating that the bill was “common-sense legislation,” Rep. Melissa Hart (R-PA), added, “I submit to my colleagues that this is a serious issue of violence, a serious issue of domestic violence, and it should not be clouded by concern about future legislation or potential legislation that some believe may try to overturn Roe v. Wade….The real victims of crime continue to be women who are victims of domestic violence due to an outraged partner. The real victims of crime are their unborn children, who often are the cause of the violence directed towards the mother.”

Noting that “rather than supporting tougher laws against domestic violence, sexual assault and battery, we are instead debating a bill that does not even recognize the harm to a pregnant woman,” Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) said. “I believe we would be much better served by laws to protect women, pregnant or not, from violence, instead of establishing an entirely new legal framework to protect fetal rights. By switching the focus of the crime, we are diverting attention from the victimized women.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) offered a substitute amendment that would have increased the penalties for individuals convicted of assaulting a pregnant woman and thereby causing “an interruption to the normal course of the pregnancy resulting in prenatal injury (including termination of the pregnancy).” The amendment was defeated, 196-229.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) urged members to vote for the substitute. “There is a remedy to the flawed bill that has been brought on the floor. That is the Lofgren-Conyers substitute, which does everything, and in some instances it has more penalty for the person that attacks a pregnant mother and kills an unborn victim than the current bill, but it gets us around the subversion of Roe v. Wade, and it comports with Roe v. Wade.”

Urging defeat of the substitute, Rep. Graham stated, “The substitute is just an irrational way to deal with the unborn….Let us come together and make sure that people in the future who take money or otherwise assault a pregnant woman and destroy the unborn child are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, no excuses, no apologies.”

A similar bill (S. 480) has been sponsored by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), but it is unclear if the Senate will consider the measure.

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