President George W. Bush, in signing into law the Unborn Victims Act, said, "The moral concern of humanity extends to those unborn children who are harmed or killed in crimes against their mothers. And now, the protection of federal law extends to those children as well.
"With this action, we widen the circle of compassion and inclusion in our society, and we reaffirm that the United States of America is building a culture of life."
Penalties for harming the unborn, except in legal abortions, exist in 29 states. In 13 of those states, developing fetuses at any stage -- including inception -- are covered. Others provide penalties for harming fetuses in the commission of a crime from the 12th week of development.
The law that came into effect Thursday applies from inception.
Federal law enforcement would be able to bring charges for the harm of the fetus, as well as the mother, in some 68 violent instances, including acts of terrorism, drug-related shootings and crimes on U.S. government property, such as military installations.
"As of today, the law of our nation will acknowledge the plain fact that crimes of violence against a pregnant woman often have two victims," Bush said at a signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House. "And therefore, in those cases, there are two offenses to be punished. Under this law, those who direct violence toward a pregnant woman will answer for the full extent of the harm they have done, and for all the crimes they have committed."
The law, five years in the making, passed Congress with large majorities -- 254 votes to 163 votes in the House and 61-38 in the Senate.
Voting against the bill was Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., President Bush's likely Democratic Party opponent in the November election.
An amendment that would have increased penalties for crimes against pregnant women but keep such offenses as single-action crimes was defeated 50-49 in the Senate.
Abortion rights advocacy groups object to the law, which they argue chips away at Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that opened the door to legal abortion, by setting a precedent recognizing the right to life of the unborn at any stage of development.
"The provision we object to is the one that grants individual, separate legal status to a fetus or embryo beginning at conception," David Seldin, communications director of NARAL Pro-Choice America told United Press International. "You don't need to do that in order to achieve the goal of protecting pregnant women and the developing lives they are carrying from violent crime, which is something everybody agrees on."
Seldin said adding the provision "is part of a concerted strategy to try and overturn Roe" and an unnecessary step "that shows where the president's true priorities are."
"I think the far right has very cynically taken advantage of very real concern and real tragedies that befall families, and pregnant women specifically, to advance their agenda."
The Unborn Victims Act is also known as the Laci and Conner Act, named after California murder victim Laci Peterson and her unborn son. Peterson's parents were with Bush at the signing ceremony, as were the parents of other victims.
Last year Bush signed into law a federal ban on so-called partial-birth abortions but has stated that although he personally disapproves of abortion per se, Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land and he does not believe the country would back a complete ban on the procedure.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, told United Press International the fears of abortion advocacy groups are unfounded.
"I think there is a real overreaction by the pro-abortion groups here," he said. "What the bill and law do is recognize, as most states have recognized, that there is a separate and distinct crime for the death of an unborn child when a woman is in the same process of either being assaulted or killed herself.
"It recognizes the distinct value and dignity, if you will, of that unborn child to life."
The ACLJ was founded by evangelist Pat Robertson and provides legal services, advice and support for attorneys involved in religious and civil liberty cases.
Sekulow said the law is not a move against Roe vs. Wade, since abortion is a legal, voluntary act on the part of a pregnant woman, but "they don't want any legislation put forward that recognizes the distinct interest of the government in protecting the life of the unborn in any circumstance ... and I think that is a sad commentary for them."
The Democratic National Committee Thursday criticized the new law and called it "another step in (Bush's) campaign to keep his right wing base happy -- and roll back women's right to choose."
"The 'Unborn Victims of Violence Act' the president signs today will weaken women's constitutional rights by giving separate legal personhood to a fetus, equal to that of the pregnant woman, thus attempting to undermine the legal basis for the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade," the DNC release stated.
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