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Unborn Victims of Violence Act Heads to White House

On March 25, the Senate approved, 61-38, a bill (H.R. 1997) dealing with fetal protection. The House approved the measure on February 26 (see The Source, 2/27/04). It will now go to the White House for President Bush’s signature.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, or “Laci and Conner’s Law,” 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. The House passed similar legislation (H.R. 503) in the 107th Congress, but the Senate did not act on the bill (see The Source, 4/27/01).

During consideration of the bill, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) offered a substitute amendment based on the text of the Motherhood Protection Act (S. 2219). The substitute would have made it a federal offense to assault a pregnant woman. If convicted, a perpetrator could be subject to up to 20 years in prison for a prenatal injury, or to life in prison for causing the termination of the pregnancy. The amendment was narrowly defeated, 49-50.

Arguing that the bill is “a concerted effort to insert the definition of when life begins into the law whenever possible,” Sen. Feinstein explained that the amendment “will accomplish the same goal as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, but will do so in a way that does not involve us in the debate about abortion or when life begins.” She went on to add, “There is no reason to vote against this substitute unless the intention is to establish legally that human life, for the purposes of Federal criminal law, begins at the moment of conception because…that is exactly what this bill does.”

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH) disputed claims that bill would affect the decision in Roe v. Wade, contending that the intent of supporters “is to bring about justice for the victims of crime. Our intent is to bring about justice for the mother and for the child for the unborn child as well as the mother. It is to conform with what the vast majority of the American people believe; that is, when a pregnant woman is assaulted and she either loses that child or that child is injured, there are, in fact, two victims. It is as simple as that… On the abortion issue, let us be done with this once and for all. This bill has nothing to do with abortion. The language could not be simpler.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) offered an amendment to provide additional assistance to victims of domestic violence. The amendment would have extended unemployment insurance benefits for victims of abuse; allowed women to take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to make a police report or appear in court; prohibited insurance companies or employers from discriminating against victims of abuse; provided medical assistance to children who had witnessed abuse; provided victims with access to health care; improved domestic violence training for health care providers; and established a workplace safety tax credit. Because the tax credit would have reduced federal revenue, a point of order was raised against the amendment. Supporters were unable to garner the 60 votes required to waive a budget point of order, and the amendment was defeated, 46-53.

Sen. Murray told the personal stories of women who were victims of domestic abuse and explained how they could have been assisted if the provisions in the amendment were law. She quoted a letter she received from an advocate for abuse victims that stated, “I have had many, many clients over the years who have come to me after they have been fired from work because they missed a day of work to go to court to get a civil protection order. In some of these instances, the women had sick days, but they were still fired. Several of these women were forced to return to their batterers after they lost their jobs because they lost [their] income and they and their children would have been homeless if they did not return.”

Arguing that the Murray amendment should not be included in the bill, Sen. Michael Enzi (R-WY) stated, “This amendment greatly expands workplace laws without any hearings or Committee consideration. The amendment creates a new set of laws requiring businesses including small businesses to provide employees with additional leave and special accommodation. However, the amendment has not been reviewed by the Committee of jurisdiction. It creates new workplace requirements without considering the impact of its implementation or its relation with existing laws. The process is flawed and irresponsible.”

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