Communications Department

President Bush Signs Unborn Victims of Violence Act Into Law, After Dramatic One-vote Win in Senate

Apr 6, 2004 | Unborn Victims of Violence


WASHINGTON (April 6, 2004) –  In a landmark right-to-life victory, President George W. Bush on April 1 signed into law the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, also known as “Laci and Conner’s Law.”

The President’s action culminated a five-year campaign by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) to win enactment of the legislation, which recognizes unborn children as victims when they are injured or killed during the commission of federal or military crimes of violence.

The President’s action came just one week after the bill (H.R. 1997) survived a showdown in the U.S. Senate by a single vote – 49-50.  The anticipated Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), interrupted his campaigning to make a rare visit to the Senate to vote against the bill.

“If Kerry were president, there would have been a veto ceremony, not a signing ceremony,” commented NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson.  “Polls show about 80 percent of Americans recognize that crimes like the killing of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, have two victims – but Kerry thinks there is only a single victim.”

President Bush signed the bill at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, in the company of seven women and men who had lost loved ones, born and unborn, in violent crimes.  Among them were Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski, the mother and stepfather of Laci Peterson.

The enormous media attention given to the murder of Laci and Conner in December, 2002, and to subsequent judicial proceedings, helped to boost the bill, especially after the family asked lawmakers to give the legislation the alternative title of “Laci and Conner’s Law” almost a year ago.

In remarks before signing the bill, the President said, “As these and the other families understand, any time an expectant mother is a victim of violence, two lives are in the balance, each deserving protection, and each deserving justice.  If the crime is murder and the unborn child’s life ends, justice demands a full accounting under the law.”

The signing event was attended by many supporters of the bill, including members of the NRLC board of directors and staff.

Leading congressional supporters were also present, including House prime sponsor Congresswoman Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), Senate prime sponsor Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tn.), Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tx.), and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), all of whom played key roles in advancing the legislation.

Also present was Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who first introduced the legislation in 1999, when he was a member of the House of Representatives.  NRLC advised on the drafting of the legislation, and has coordinated the coalition that worked for its enactment over the past five years.

Throughout that period, the bill was vigorously opposed by pro-abortion advocacy groups such as the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.  These groups have  asserted that crimes like the killing of Laci and Conner Peterson have only a single victim.  They also say that the new law conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that dictate legal abortion, although the bill specifically exempts abortion.  

(For a selection of reactions to the enactment of the law, from both supporters and opponents, click here.)

President Bush was joined on the stage by six women and men who had lost both their daughters and their unborn grandchildren in violent crimes: Rocha and Grantski; Carol and Buford Lyons (victims Ashley and Landon); Cynthia Warner (victims Heather Fliegelman and Jonah); and Stephanie Alberts (victims Christina and Ashley Nichole).  Also present was Tracy Marciniak Seavers, who survived an assault that killed her unborn son, Zachariah.

Prior to the public ceremony, the family members met privately with the President.  Several shared with him powerful photographs of their lost loved ones — photos that also were displayed on the floor of the Senate during the debate on March 25.  (The stories and photos of these victims and their families are posted here and here.)

At the ceremony, they stood immediately behind the president, some with tears in their eyes, as he spoke and then signed the bill.

Senate Obstacles  

The bill first passed the House of Representatives in 1999, but it was opposed by the Clinton Administration and died without Senate action.  The House passed it again with President Bush’s support in 2001, but the Senate was still under Democratic control, and again the Senate did not act.

On February 26, the House once again passed the bill, by the widest margin yet, 254-163.  

Following the House vote, Rocha issued a public statement rebuking Senate Democrats for obstructing the bill, and warning, “If Laci and Conner’s Law is not enacted this year, I will keep fighting for it.  I will not hesitate to explain the issue to their voters.  To vote against Laci and Conner’s Law, or to obstruct it, is indefensible.”

(You can read or listen to Sharon Rocha’s complete statement here.)  

Frist Saves the Day  

Two weeks later, on March 12, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tn.) and other top Senate Republican leaders achieved a breakthrough agreement with Senate Democrats.  Under this agreement, the Senate would take up and complete action on the House-passed bill with no filibuster allowed – but only after voting on two hostile amendments.  

While the agreement removed one major obstacle – the possibility of a filibuster – supporters of the bill still faced a harrowing challenge, since adoption of either hostile amendment would have doomed the bill.

One amendment, offered by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wa.), would have added to the seven-page bill an additional 158 pages of provisions dealing with “domestic violence” programs and other issues, none of which had been considered when the House passed the bill.  If adopted, this massive amendment would have killed the bill by entangling it in a thicket of unrelated issues and procedural obstacles.

The second amendment was the long-anticipated alternative bill backed by pro-abortion advocacy groups, the “single-victim substitute” sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.).

Feinstein’s amendment would have created a new federal offense of “interruption of the normal course of a pregnancy.”  It also would have written into federal law the doctrine that such a crime has only a single victim – the pregnant woman.

“Under the Feinstein single-victim bill, if a mother survived an attack but lost her baby, federal authorities would have had to tell her that the law says nobody really died,” NRLC’s Johnson explained.

Feinstein said that she wanted to create penalties for this new single-victim offense equal to those that would be created by the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.  But legal analyses by the Department of Justice and by NRLC, provided to Senate offices before the vote, concluded that flaws in the amendment would prevent such penalties from actually being imposed.

During the days and hours leading up to the debate, NRLC lobbyists and the victims’ family members met with undecided senators and their staffs.  Those senators were also the focus of efforts by Administration officials.

The outcome remained in doubt, however, throughout the four-hour Senate debate on the Feinstein Substitute.

(See “Excerpts from Senate Floor Debate,” here.)

“At the end, the leadership of Senator Frist was decisive in persuading several wavering Republican senators to vote against the Feinstein Substitute,” said Johnson.

In a long and suspenseful roll call, the Feinstein Substitute failed by a single vote, 49-50.

Three Democrats opposed the amendment – Zell Miller (Ga.) and Ben Nelson (Ne.), both cosponsors of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and John Breaux (La.), who strode into the chamber late in the roll call and doomed the Feinstein Substitute with his “nay” vote.

Four Republicans supported the Feinstein Substitute – Lincoln Chafee (RI), Susan Collins (Me.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), and Olympia Snowe (Me.).

Another supporter of the Feinstein Substitute, Senator Joseph Biden (D-De.), missed the vote, but his presence would not have affected the outcome, since the amendment would have failed on a tie vote.

The Murray Amendment also failed, 46-53.

Following the defeat of the two amendments, the Senate voted 61-38 to pass H.R. 1997 and send it to President Bush.  Twelve (12) senators who had supported the Feinstein Substitute also voted to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act on this final vote.     

(See the Senate roll calls on the Feinstein Substitute and final passage of the bill in the NRLC Senate scorecard.)  

Kerry Opposes Bill

Kerry, who has missed nearly all Senate votes this year as he campaigned for President, showed up to vote in favor of the Feinstein Substitute, then against passage of the bill.

“Apparently, John Kerry believes that if a criminal commits a federal crime that injures a pregnant woman and kills her unborn son or daughter, prosecutors should tell the grieving mother that she did not really lose a baby,” Johnson said.

A letter by Kerry opposing the bill, and a letter from Sharon Rocha urging him to reconsider, are postedhere.)  

What the Law Does

The new law recognizes as a legal victim any “child in utero” who is injured or killed during the commission of a federal crime of violence.  The bill defines “child in utero” as “a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.”

The law lists the 68 existing federal crimes to which the bill would apply, each of which already covers the pregnant woman.  These laws cover federal jurisdictions (such as federal lands, tribal lands, and the military system) and federal officials.  They also cover various types of criminal conduct that Congress has decided should be federal crimes wherever they occur, including interstate stalking, kidnapping, certain drug offenses, bombings, and many others.

From now on, if a person harms a pregnant woman while violating one of the existing statutes listed in the bill, he will be charged under the previous laws for her injury or death, but also will face a second charge for the harm done to the second victim, the unborn child.

The law deals only with federal and military crimes, not state crimes.  It does not alter or conflict with any law of any state.

“The great majority of violent crimes are governed by state law, not federal law, so it is absolutely necessary for each state to also enact and enforce a comprehensive unborn victims law,” explained Mary Spaulding Balch, NRLC state legislative director.

Currently, 29 states allow homicide charges to be filed on behalf of an unborn victim, at least in some circumstances.  Of these, 16 cover the entire period of pre-natal development, while the 13 kick in at some later point, which varies from state to state.  (An always-current summary of state unborn victims laws is here.)     

The Kentucky legislature enacted a federal homicide bill in February, the product of years of work by Kentucky Right to Life and an appeal to lawmakers by Carol and Buford Lyons.

In March, the West Virginia legislature passed a fetal homicide bill (S. 566) by margins of 83-16 and 34-0, but Governor Bob Wise (D) vetoed the bill on March 24.     

In February, both houses of the Virginia legislature approved a fetal homicide law by margins greater than two-thirds.  Governor Mark Warner (D) has not yet acted on the bill.     

On April 5, the California Supreme Court ruled 6-1 to that the state’s fetal homicide law can be applied even in cases in which an assailant did not know that the woman he attacked was pregnant.  (See story here.)


Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tn.) speaks at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol on March 25, 2004,, immediately following the defeat of the Feinstein single-victim amendment. Behind him, from left to right: Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Senator Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), Buford Lyons, Carol Lyons, Tracy Marciniak Seavers, Stephanie Alberts, Kristin Eckmann, Cynthia Warner, Ron Grantski. Photo by Karen Cross.