Communications Department

Showdown Near In U.S. Senate on Unborn Victims of Crimes

Mar 7, 2004 | Unborn Victims of Violence

WASHINGTON (March 7, 2004) — A long-awaited showdown is expected in the U.S. Senate within a matter of weeks on whether unborn children who are injured or killed during federal crimes will be recognized as victims.

On February 26, the House of Representatives passed the NRLC-backed Unborn Victims of Violence Act (H.R. 1997), also known as “Laci and Conner’s Law,” by a vote of 254-163.

Immediately following the vote, President Bush said, “Pregnant women who have been harmed by violence, and their families, know that there are two victims – the mother and the unborn child — and both victims should be protected by federal law. I urge the Senate to pass this bill so that I can sign it into law.”

(To read President Bush’s complete statement, click here.)

“This bill would recognize, for federal crimes, that when a criminal attacks a woman and kills her unborn child, he has claimed two victims,” commented NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson. “Pro-abortion advocacy groups like the ACLU oppose the bill because they insist that a crime like the killing of Laci and Conner Peterson has only one victim, but 80% of the public favors a double homicide charge in such a case.”

Senate Democrats Obstruct

In the Senate, Republican Leader Bill Frist (Tn.) for months has been urging Senate Democrats to allow the bill to come up under a “time agreement” that would provide for orderly consideration of germane amendments and a final vote. But the Democratic caucus is rejecting such proposals – in effect obstructing the bill by insisting on the right to offer an unlimited number of other bills, on other subjects, as floor amendments.

“The leader of Senate Democrats, Tom Daschle, has been telling constituents since last summer that he agrees with Frist that the bill should be brought up ‘expeditiously,’ but the Democratic caucus continues to refuse to permit this to occur,” said NRLC’s Johnson. “Very soon, every senator must be forced to go on record as to whether the obstruction of Laci and Conner’s Law will continue.”

(To view a letter from Senator Daschle to constituents, claiming that he supported action “expeditiously” on the bill, dated June 12, 2003, clichere. This is a PDF file that requires the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.)

In the Senate, the legislation (S. 1019) is sponsored by Senator Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and 39 others. (To see the always current list of cosponsors of any bill tracked by NRLC, click here.)

The bill would recognize 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 bill is vigorously opposed by pro-abortion advocacy groups such as the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, which say that the bill would conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings legalizing abortion. But the bill specifically exempts abortion, and federal and state courts have rejected every legal challenge to the fetal homicide laws that are already in effect in 29 states.

Sharon Rocha Warns Democrats

Immediately after the House passed the bill on February 26, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) held a press conference at which he released an audio recording in which Sharon Rocha – whose daughter Laci and unborn grandson Conner were murdered in a nationally publicized crime in California — sharply rebuked Senate Democrats (including her own two California senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer) for obstructing the bill.

“Laci and Conner’s Law has nothing to do with abortion,” Rocha said. “So I also call on Senator John Kerry and Senator John Edwards, and every other senator who has refused to support it, to reconsider. I call on them to look at how the laws in California and many other states have worked, and to vote yes. I believe the vast majority of Americans are in agreement that when a pregnant woman and her unborn child are murdered a double homicide has been committed. It is time for those who make the law to listen to us.”

Rocha added, “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.”

(The read Rocha’s complete statement click here.)

(To view a letter by Kerry opposing the bill, and a letter from Rocha urging him to reconsider, click here.)

House Debate

During its February 26 debate, the House rejected, 186-229, an alternative bill backed by pro-abortion groups, known as the “single-victim substitute,” offered by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Ca.).

(The House roll calls on the Lofgren single-victim substitute and on passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act appear as roll calls number 9 and 10, respectively, in the NRLC U.S. House scorecard for 2003-04.)

This substitute would increase penalties for a violent federal crime if it causes “interruption” of a pregnancy — but it would also codify the doctrine that such a crime has only a single victim, the pregnant woman.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) will offer a similar “single-victim substitute” in the Senate.

“Under the single-victim bill, if the mother survives the attack but loses her baby, federal authorities would have to tell her that the law says nobody really died, just as they do now,” NRLC’s Johnson explained.

During the debate, opponents of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act often grossly misrepresented the plain language of the bill.

Typical were remarks by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY): “If a pregnant woman is on an airline and crashes, is the airline now liable for two deaths? If a woman is working out in a gym with a trainer and miscarries, is the trainer a murderer? Pregnant women will become a liability for stores, gyms, and other businesses, and their freedom to perform daily tasks will be restricted.”

Supporters noted, however, that the bill would allow charges to be brought only against someone who harms an unborn child while doing something that is already a violent federal crime – and selling airplane tickets or gym workouts are not federal crimes.

“There are two victims in these kinds of crimes,” said Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), the lead sponsor of H.R. 1997. “That is so clear from the Laci and Conner Peterson case. The family came to visit us and asked that we name this bill after Laci and Conner Peterson in remembrance of them. . . . .They have lost a daughter, Laci Peterson, and their grandson Conner. That cannot be restored by enhancing the penalty for the attack against Laci Peterson. It cannot be restored at all, but the least we can do as lawmakers is recognize the loss to the family.”

The Lyons murders

During the week of the House vote, Carol and Buford Lyons of Scott County, Kentucky, visited Capitol Hill to tell lawmakers about the killing of their 18-year-old daughter Ashley and her unborn son Landon on January 7. The crime occurred just hours after Ashley and her mother had first viewed an ultrasound video of Landon.

“Nobody can tell me that there were not two victims,” Carol Lyons said. “I placed Landon in Ashley’s arms, wrapped in a baby blanket that I had sewn for him, just before I kissed my daughter goodbye for the last time and closed the casket.”

Immediately after the House vote, Mr. and Mrs. Lyons appeared at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol, sponsored by Rep. Blunt. This resulted in coverage of their story by several major news outlets, including the Fox News Channel, which showed a portion of the ultrasound video of Landon Lyons.

(For more details on this tragic story, see “Remember Their Names,” by Douglas Johnson.)

On the same day, other members of the family were present in the Kentucky state capitol as Governor Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.) signed a fetal homicide bill, which was passed by large margins after Mr. and Mrs. Lyons appealed to the legislature in mid-January.

Kentucky thereby became the twenty-ninth state to allow separate homicide charges for unlawful killing of an “unborn child” (the term used in most such laws) or “fetus.” Some of these laws are more comprehensive than others. (For an always-current summary of state unborn victims laws, click here.)

The Alberts murders

In West Virginia, the state Senate passed a fetal homicide bill 34-0 on March 2. The state House is expected to approve it by an overwhelming margin soon. Governor Bob Wise (D) has expressed disapproval of the bill, but has not yet said whether he will veto it.

On March 4, supporters of the bill, including West Virginia Right to Life Executive Director Karen Cross, held a press conference in the state capitol building. At this event, reporters heard Stephanie Alberts speak of the murder of her daughter, Christina, 20, and unborn granddaughter, Ashley Nichole, in 1998, during an armed robbery in Christina’s home in South Charleston. Because the state has no fetal homicide law, state prosecutors were not able to bring any charge against the robbers for Ashley’s death.

“When I laid my daughter to rest, a baby girl lay in her arms,” said Alberts, who is a nurse. “Ashley was a beautiful little girl with dark brown hair, a little upturned noise, ten fingers and ten toes. She was a little girl that had the right to be born and grow and pursue her dreams. All of that was taken from her, with full knowledge, and yet no one is held accountable for that.”

In an earlier statement, Alberts said, “Ashley could have survived, according to obstetricians we have talked with, up to ten minutes following Christina’s death. Her demise was neither painless nor quick.”

In Virginia, both houses of the legislature in February approved a fetal homicide law, by more than two-thirds margins, and sent it to Governor Mark Warner (D), who has not yet said whether he will sign it.

Unborn victims bills are also under active consideration in a number of other states, including Iowa, Kansas, and New York.