New Battle On Reproductive Choice Opens in Senate

February 23, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — A Senate panel is slated today to examine a bill that would be the first to create independent legal rights for a fetus, a fertilized egg and a pre-implanted embryo. The American Civil Liberties Union said the bill is one of the top legislative priorities for groups that seek to ban abortion.

“The sponsors of this legislation are more concerned about their many schemes to undermine reproductive freedom than they are about trying to protect women’s right to continue a pregnancy,” said Kathryn Engustian, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “If they were truly interested in protecting women, we would be working hard with them to pass this legislation.”

Introduced by staunchly anti-choice Sen. Mike DeWine, R-OH — and backed by the National Right to Life Committee — the legislation (S. 1673) would create a new criminal offense to punish anyone who injures or causes the death of what its sponsors call “a member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of development” during the commission of certain federal crimes. By virtue of its broad language, the legislation covers fertilized eggs (zygotes), pre-implantation embryos (blastocysts), embryos (through week eight of a pregnancy) and fetuses.

Supporters of the bill claim it would not affect legal abortions. “The claim is disingenuous,” Engustian said. “These measures threaten reproductive rights 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.”

In pushing the bill, supporters have focused on tragedies such as miscarriages that result from spousal abuse or accidents caused by drunk driving. The ACLU’s Engustian, however, said that some of the tragedies discussed at today’s Senate hearing were caused by crimes that would not even be covered by the proposed legislation.

“The ACLU fully supports efforts to punish acts of violence against women that harm or terminate a pregnancy,” Engustian said. She noted, for example, that the ACLU supported passage of legislation in North Carolina that focused on the harm to the woman that occurs when a pregnancy is ended against her will.

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

The Clinton Administration has promised to veto the legislation, which was adopted by the House in September 1999 by a vote of 254 to 172, well short of a veto-proof majority.

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