President Bush on Thursday signed legislation making it a separate crime to harm an embryo or fetus during the commission of a violent federal crime against a pregnant woman. And he declared that, with the new law, the United States was “building a culture of life.”
In a ceremony suffused with the politics of abortion, the president said, “Any time an expectant mother is a victim of violence, two lives are in the balance, each deserving protection, and each deserving justice.”
The Unborn Victims of Violence Act protects life in the womb at any stage of its development. The measure does not deal with abortion but at its foundation, it deals with the central question in the abortion debate: At what point does an embryo or a fetus deserve full protection of the law as a living person?
Advocates of abortion rights fear it will be used to establish precedent to undercut those rights, established in 1973 by the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade.
Asked what he would say to those who thought the law was part of an administration effort to chip away at abortion rights, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said: “This is legislation that enjoyed broad bipartisan support. It has the strong support of the American people.”
He did not, however, answer the specific question.
The White House had planned to stage the bill-signing ceremony on the South Lawn. Rain forced the ceremony inside, to the East Room, an equally impressive setting that imbued the measure with a very public presidential seal of approval.
The White House generally reserves such ceremonies for major pieces of legislation to which it wishes to draw attention or for those that carry special political impact. Most legislation is signed without an audience or live television coverage.
Standing behind Bush as he spoke about the measure were Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski, the mother and stepfather of Laci Peterson. Peterson was eight months’ pregnant when she disappeared from her Modesto home in 2002. Last April, her remains and those of her unborn son washed ashore in San Francisco Bay.
Her killing spurred efforts to pass the bill, which had stalled before national attention was focused on her. Her husband, Scott, has been charged in state court with two counts of murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Relatives of three other pregnant women who were murdered -- and whose fetuses died in those crimes -- attended the ceremony, the White House said. Also participating was Tracy Marciniak-Seavers, whose unborn son was killed in an attack in Milwaukee. The White House said that her fetus, in its ninth month, was not recognized as a victim under Wisconsin law at the time.
The measure received final approval March 25, when the Senate passed it, 61 to 38. The House approved it in late February, 245 to 163.
More than half the states, including California, already have laws allowing separate charges to be filed in such cases. The legislation signed by Bush makes it a separate crime to harm an embryo or fetus during the commission of 68 federal crimes, such as kidnapping across state lines, drug-related drive-by shootings, interstate stalking and assaults on federal property.
During the Senate debate, abortion-rights advocates presented the bill as a thinly veiled effort to overturn a woman’s right to an abortion by giving the fetus a separate legal identity; Roe vs. Wade established, under the constitutional right to privacy, a woman’s right to choose abortion before the fetus can live on its own.
The bill’s supporters presented it as an anticrime measure -- “about simple justice,” said the chief sponsor, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), during the Senate debate.
The measure has had the effect of introducing the abortion debate into yet another presidential election campaign.
“It’s a good election-year issue. It props up the base, with a social cause, without alienating other parts of the Republican coalition,” said John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
“This particular issue reaches evangelicals and conservative Protestants, but it also has great traction among conservative Catholics, and the president needs both of those groups,” he said, adding: “It works for the president in a lot of ways.”