Pulling a Fast One

It is called the unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), but is it really an antiabortion bill in disguise? Proponents of the act, which at press time had passed the House but had yet to hit the Senate floor, say it would protect pregnant women by levying additional penalties for any federal crime that injures or kills a woman’s fetus. But there is nothing about protecting women in this bill. In fact, it would disconnect a woman from her fetus in the eyes of the law, in effect making the fetus a separate person.

According to the bill, if someone commits a federal crime of violence against a pregnant woman that results in harm to her fetus or termination of her pregnancy, the attacker is guilty of two crimes, against two people. The crimes would merit special punishment, with the harshest warranted if the perpetrator intended to harm the fetus.

So when, according to law, does life begin? In Arkansas, a 12-week-old fetus is a legal person; in California, it’s seven weeks, but the UVVA only says, “at any stage of development.” And it applies even if the woman doesn’t know she’s pregnant. According to the National Abortion Federation, this could mean that anything from a nine-month-old fetus to a six-day-old blastocyst yet to implant in the womb, or even a fertilized five-hour-old zygote would have rights equal to that of the woman. And that could not only affect abortion rights, but certain forms of birth control. Yet proponents insist this is not an abortion bill, since abortions are excluded from it.

Back in the spring, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D.-Calif.) proposed compromise legislation that increased the penalties for attacking a pregnant woman, but did not address the personhood of the fetus. Conservatives shot it down. Representative Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) claimed the Lofgren amendment failed “to acknowledge that when unborn children are killed, they have been murdered. Life and death should not be subsumed beneath a semantic fog.”

A semantic fog, indeed. The bill’s rhetorical minefield is part of a deft strategy by the right. Its anti-choice backers say they seek to rise above the messy, hostile debate over abortion, yet they continue to insist that a fetus is an “unborn child.” They contend they’re offering a middle ground, and that pro-choice groups are extremists. But, as activists point out, the National Right to Life Committee has made this bill one of its top priorities. “The real goal of this legislation is to erode the reproductive rights of women,” says Monica Hobbs, of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, which has fought hard against the bill on the Hill.

If and when the bill comes to a vote in the Senate, pro-choice lobbyists think it will be very close—perhaps a question of two votes. Quite a few senators are up for reelection in 2002, and it’s difficult to vote against something that sounds so benign.

As anti-choicers continue to misrepresent the medical realities of pregnancy in an effort to hammer another nail in the coffin of Roe v. Wade, pro-choice groups are mobilizing. The ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project has pumped resources into lobbying senators on why the legislation is “unnecessary and ill-advised,” and the Feminist Majority Foundation is calling on activists to e-mail Congress to stop this “deceptive” bill.

It won’t be an easy battle to win, say activists, but it’s a critical one: “Whenever a fetus or a zygote is given legal status as a person, it hurts women’s reproductive rights,” says Rosemary Dempsey, director of government relations at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in Washington. “This bill does nothing but diminish the status of women.”

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