Communications Department

Pro-Abortion Groups Lash Out As House Panel Approves “Unborn Victims of Violence Act”

Aug 31, 1999 | 08-August 1999 NRL News

The following article on the Unborn Victims of Violence Act is published in the August 10, 1999 edition of National Right to Life News. For further information, contact the NRLC Federal Legislative Office at

By NRLC Federal Legislative Office

WASHINGTON (August 9)– Leading pro-abortion organizations have launched a fuselage of vehement attacks against a major new pro-life bill B even as the measure won support from a key House subcommittee, with prospects for consideration by the full House before the end of the year.

The bill, the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” (HR 2436), would establish, for purposes of federal criminal law, that unborn children are human beings who can be the victims of federal crimes B over and above any harm done to their mothers.

Currently, in an assault in which a mother and unborn child are both harmed, federal law recognizes only the harm to the mother. Under the bill, however, justice could be done on behalf of both victims. For example, if an assailant commits a federal crime that injures a woman and kills her unborn child, he could be prosecuted for two crimes: assault on the mother, and manslaughter or murder of the baby.

The penalty for the harm to the baby would be the same as for the same harm done to persons already born (except that the death penalty would not apply).

The measure was introduced by Congressman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on July 1. The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) was consulted in the drafting of the measure and strongly supports it.

On August 4, only a month after its introduction, the bill was approved by the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee. The subcommittee’s rapid work suggests that it may be possible for the bill to reach the House floor before Congress recesses for the year, which may be as early as late October. (If the bill does not reach the floor this year, it will remain alive for consideration during the second session of the 106th Congress, which will begin in January.)

Pro-abortion Groups Attack Bill

The bill would apply to over 65 existing laws that define federal crimes involving violence. These cover, among other things, violent acts conducted by military personnel or against certain federal employees, or in federal jurisdictions. In addition, Congress has chosen to define certain acts as federal crimes no matter where they occur Bfor example, bank robberies, some drug-related offenses, and certain crimes conducted by persons who cross state lines.

The bill is focused entirely on violent assaults on mother and child by third parties. Any abortion to which a woman consents, or any act by the mother herself (legal or illegal) that affects her own unborn child, are not included in the scope of the bill.

Nevertheless, pro-abortion groups have harshly denounced the legislation.

The Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union distributed a press release under the headline, “New Battle on Reproductive Choice Opens As House Panel Considers Fetal Rights Legislation.”

In the statement, ACLU Legislative Counsel Kathryn Engustian objected to the bill because it would, she said, “separate the woman from her fetus in the eyes of the law. And we believe that such separation is merely the first step toward eroding a woman’s right to determine the fate of her own pregnancy and to direct the course of her own health care.”

Engustian said that the ACLU would support a bill providing “enhanced penalties” for acts that “injure or terminate a pregnancy.”

Enhanced penalties would focus the criminal law where it should be: On the especially devastating loss or injury to the woman that occurs when her pregnancy is compromised,” Engustian said.

(Some other pro-abortion groups also endorsed the “enhanced penalties” concept, which is radically different from the “unborn victims” approach. Under an “enhanced penalties” bill, unborn children would remain non-entities in federal law, and the act of taking a baby’s life would be regarded merely as an additional and lesser injury to the mother.)

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) distributed a statement by PPFA President Gloria Feldt under the headline, “Congress’ Latest Back Door Attempt to Overturn Roe v. Wade.

Anti-choice members of Congress have introduced the ‘Unborn Victims of Violence Act’ to do what the ‘Human Life Amendment’ and other anti-abortion bills have failed to do B separate the fetus from the woman, and attach rights of personhood on the fetus,” Feldt said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), in a July 21 statement.

As we strive to prevent these heinous acts against women and prosecute those who commit them, we must not proceed in any fashion that provides a foundation on which anti-choice lawmakers can build a future case for tearing down the legal right to choose abortion embodied in Roe v. Wade,” Michelman said, adding, “Clearly, the so-called ‘Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 1999’ would forge new legal ground in attempting to recognize a fetus as a person, a position antithetical to the findings of Roe. Indeed, the Act must be seen as another battle in the 26-year-long crusade since Roe to endow the fetus with rights and thus erode the fundamental right of women to choose.”

NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson commented, “Why do pro-abortion groups proclaim that the bill is an attempt to ban abortion, even though they know that abortion is excluded from the scope of the bill? It seems their greatest fear is not of what the bill actually does legally, but of how it might encourage people to think about the unborn child. They feel compelled to oppose anything that challenges their nonsensical, ideological construct, in which an unborn human being is nothing more than a collection of body tissues.”

Amendments Improve Bill

Democratic members of the Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee opposed the bill. Subcommittee member Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) echoed the objections of the pro-abortion organizations, and said that the bill “is more worthy of the Iranian legislature than this Congress.”

But Nadler and the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), were outvoted 5-2 by Republicans on the subcommittee: Graham; Rep. Charles Canady (Fl.), the subcommittee chairman; Henry Hyde (Il.), chairman of the full Judiciary Committee; Asa Hutchinson (Ar.); and Bob Goodlatte (Va.).

Prior to approving the measure, the subcommittee adopted two amendments proposed by Graham.

One amendment was drafted in response to objections that the bill=s original reference to “child in utero” was too “vague.” The amendment clarifies that “child in utero” means “a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.”

The second Graham amendment clarified that, in order to convict an assailant under the law, the government wouldnot need to show that “the person engaging in the conduct had knowledge or should have had knowledge that the victim of the underlying offense was pregnant” or that “the defendant intended to cause the death of, or bodily injury to, the unborn child.” However, under the amendment, in any case in which the government can prove that the assailant intended to kill the unborn child, he more likely will be subject to the most severe penalties B those provided in federal law for “intentionally killing or attempting to kill a human being,” up to and including life in prison (but not the death penalty).

NRLC’s Johnson said that the two amendments improved an already excellent bill. 

The version approved by the subcommittee makes it crystal clear that any aggressor who is thinking about attacking a woman of childbearing age had better reckon with the possibility that there may be a baby on board B and that he will be held responsible if he injures or kills that baby, even if he didn’t know about the baby,” Johnson said. “Beyond that, if it can be proved that he knew about and intentionally killed the baby, then in many cases he could be charged with murder B even if the mother survives.”

Panel Hears Powerful Testimony

On July 21, the Constitution Subcommittee held a public hearing on the bill, receiving powerfully emotional testimony from Michael Lenz of Oklahoma City. Mr. Lenz’s wife, Carrie, and their unborn son, Michael James Lenz III, were both killed in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Under current law, the killing of Carrie Lenz — an employee of the Drug Enforcement Administration — was a federal crime. But the killing of Michael James Lenz was not, because unborn children are not recognized as victims in federal criminal law.

Mr. Lenz testified that the afternoon before the bombing, he and his wife had ultrasound photos taken, and learned their baby was a boy. They immediately named him.

We were so happy we even paid for extra ultrasound pictures to show off,”  Mr. Lenz said. “When we arrived home that evening, we called all of our friends and relatives to tell them the news. We didn’t know it at the time, but that would be the last time Carrie spoke to the people she loved most.”

The next morning, Carrie Lenz left early for work to show the ultrasound photos to her co-workers at the Drug Enforcement Administration office in the Murrah Building. “At 9:03 that morning I was no longer an expecting father or husband,”  Mr. Lenz said. “At 28 years old, I was a widower.”

Mr. Lenz said that the official death total for the bombing was 168, but three unborn children were also killed, so “in my mind, 171 people lost their lives that day, and three daddies-to-be became widowers.”

Even if his son alone had been killed and his wife had survived, federal law should recognize that his son was a victim, Mr. Lenz said, asking the panel, “Should we as people allow that act of violence to remain a victimless crime? No Michael the Third ever mentioned? I don=t think that would be right.”

At the hearing, a statement was distributed by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, a New York-based pro-abortion legal defense group. The statement read in part: “By proposing to extend to unborn children the same legal protections of living persons, this act constitutes a blatant effort to create fetal rights equal to those of women. The U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly rejected recognition of fetal rights, holding that constitutional protection for all citizens begins at birth. . . . Any effort to address fetal loss must focus on the woman.”

But Prof. Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame Law School, testifying in support of the bill, reminded the panel that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 upheld a Missouri law declaring that the “life of each human being begins at conception” and that “unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being.” The Supreme Court said that the law was permissible so long as it was not employed to restrict abortion in ways inconsistent with the Court’s past rulings, Bradley testified.

Eleven (11) states already have laws similar to the bill, and none has fallen to any constitutional challenge.

Terry Dempsey, a former Minnesota state legislator, testified regarding a comprehensive unborn victims law that was enacted under his sponsorship in 1986. Dempsey, now a state judge, said that the law had been used appropriately to punish violent criminals who injure or kill unborn children, and had been upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Because the bill would affect the military, the bill has also been referred to the House Armed Services Committee, which has not yet scheduled action on the measure. The committee is chaired by Congressman Floyd Spence (R-SC), who is pro-life.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act has not yet been introduced in the Senate.