New Battle on Reproductive Choice Opens as House Panel Considers Fetal Rights Legislation

July 21, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Saying its supporters seek to undermine the constitutional underpinning for reproductive freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union today denounced the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act.”

Introduced by three staunch anti-choice representatives — Lindsey Graham, R-SC, Chris Smith, R-NJ, and Charles Canady, R-FL — the legislation, H.R. 2436, would create a new, separate criminal offense to punish anyone who injures or causes the death of a fetus during the commission of a federal crime.

The bill is moving with unusual speed. Today, only weeks after it was introduced, a House Judiciary subcommittee is holding a hearing on the bill; the panel is expected to vote on the measure tomorrow.

“The ACLU fully supports efforts to punish acts of violence against women that injure or terminate a pregnancy,” said Kathryn Engustian, an ACLU Legislative Counsel who handles reproductive choice issues.

“But the sponsors of this legislation are not trying to protect women,” Engustian added. “They instead seek to advance their anti-choice agenda by altering federal law to elevate the fetus to an unprecedented status.”

Questioning whether the measure’s proponents sought to protect women or open a new front in the battle over abortion rights, Engustian noted that none of the legislation’s original sponsors have endorsed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a 1994 comprehensive measure that addressed the problem of violence against women. And she said that anti-choice groups have drafted and circulated similar “fetal protection” legislation across the country.

“These measures are inappropriate and dangerous,” Engustian said, “because they seek to 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.”

While opposed to the Graham-Smith-Canady measure, the ACLU said it would support legislation imposing enhanced penalties for criminal acts against pregnant women that result in harm to their fetus.

“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.

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