In the 31 years since the Roe v. Wade decision, a hardening of opinions on, and a general unwillingness to consider, the rights of unborn children in our society have characterized much of American political discourse. Whether a policy issue has anything to do with Roe or not, anything perceived as even tangentially involving the unborn becomes ensnared in abortion politics. For years this has been the fate of legislation which I proudly co-sponsor: the Unborn
Victims of Violence Act. This legislation simply states that if an unborn child is injured or killed during the commission of a federal crime of violence, the assailant can be charged with a separate offense for harm done to the child. By acknowledging a simple, undeniable fact, namely that two persons are harmed when a pregnant woman is attacked or murdered, this legislation has found itself in the middle of America’s abortion debate.
Thankfully, the American public has no such qualms about recognizing violent crimes against the unborn: a June 1, 2003, Newsweek/Princeton Survey Research Associates poll shows that 84 percent of Americans believe prosecutors should be able to bring a homicide charge against an attacker who causes the death of a child in the womb. Only 9 percent believe such charges should never be allowed. Following the February 2004 House passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, the Senate has the opportunity to represent the will of the American people and affirmatively state that both the mother and unborn child injured or killed during commission of a federal crime are victims. To do so is the right and humane course for our nation.
Following the news coverage of the Laci Peterson case in the past year, most Americans recognize that two lives were ended in that tragic affair. Many Americans would probably be surprised, however, to learn that the ability of prosecutors to charge a defendant separately for violent acts against an unborn child depends on the state in which the offense was committed. Currently 29 states have laws recognizing the killing of an unborn child as homicide: 16 states, including my home state of Pennsylvania, recognize unborn children as victims throughout pregnancy; 13 states, including California, recognize unborn children as victims during certain periods of prenatal development. Other states, including Maryland and New Hampshire, are considering such legislation.
If such a crime is committed on federal property, such as a military base, the death or injury of the baby is treated as if it never happened. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act will for the first time allow federal prosecutors to seek justice for the unborn victim.
Sadly, a heinous crime committed five years ago in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania illustrates the need for updating federal law. On Jan. 1, 1999, Deanna Mitts of Connellsville, Pa., was killed by a pipe bomb upon returning to her apartment from a New Year’s Eve party. Also killed by the blast were Deanna’s 3-year-old daughter Kayla and her unborn daughter Jessica, then in the eighth month of gestation. When Jessica’s presumed father was arrested for the attack, he was charged under the federal arson statute, meaning he could be charged only with the murders of Deanna and Kayla. At trial, it was learned that the defendant had openly talked of killing his unborn child because he did not want to be a father and Deanna refused to have Jessica aborted. The father was eventually convicted and received life in prison for the murders of Deanna and Kayla; he received no punishment for the death of Jessica.
I believe it is vital that federal law recognize what so many state laws already do — that there are two victims when a pregnant woman is attacked and her unborn child is harmed. Denying this fact is the equivalent of telling grieving families that the child does not count and that nothing of value was lost. Is that the message the federal government should send to America’s mothers and fathers about the importance of these lives?
The Unborn Victims of Violence act was written to end this indefensible disparity by complementing existing state laws with new protections for unborn children murdered in conjunction with the commission of an existing federal crime. Opponents of this legislation will argue that this bill is just an attempt to undermine Roe v. Wade. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act specifically does not permit prosecution in cases of abortion, medical treatments of the mother or child, or the actions of a woman with respect to her own unborn child. This legislation does not usurp existing state laws (or lack thereof) on this subject, but rather allows the separate charge of fetal homicide only in cases where a defendant is charged with one of the 68 existing crimes of violence enumerated in the bill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) offered an amendment to the Unborn Victims legislation that would increase criminal penalties for violent attacks against pregnant women, while refusing to recognize that two victims have been harmed. The Justice Department has raised doubts about whether the Feinstein amendment could produce a successful prosecution or impose criminal punishment for the offenses it creates. The Feinstein amendment fails to fully recognize the losses suffered by families of these victims.
The Unborn Victims of Violence Act makes an important statement: that our society recognizes the loss that occurs when a woman has her child’s life, at any stage of development, forcibly taken from her. I hope my colleagues will refuse to allow this common-sense, compassionate legislation to become trapped in the politics of abortion, where it clearly does not belong. The House of Representatives has passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act three times in six years. I hope that the Senate will find the courage to follow suit and defend these most vulnerable victims of violent crime.
Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) is the Republican Conference chairman.