WASHINGTON - Passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act by the U.S. Senate drew praise from pro-life groups and criticism from advocates of keeping abortion legal.
"We applaud the Senate for voting for justice for women and their children," said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, director of planning and information for the U.S. Catholic bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.
"No woman should ever be told she lost nothing when she loses her child to a brutal attacker," Ruse added.
The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 61-38 March 25. It had passed in the House Feb. 26 by a vote of 254-163.
President Bush said he looked forward to signing it into law. "Pregnant women who have been harmed by violence, and their families, know that there are two victims - the mother and the unborn child - and both victims should be protected by federal law," he said.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic candidate for president this fall, voted against the bill.
The Unborn Victims of Violence Act is also known as "Laci and Conner's Law" after Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, whose disappearance and death drew national attention. The California woman was nearly eight months pregnant when she disappeared in December 2002; Laci and Conner's bodies were found the following April.
Under the law, anyone who harms a woman's unborn child while committing a federal crime, such as assaulting the woman on federal property, commits a distinct federal crime against the child in addition to the crime against the woman.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., lost by a 50-49 vote on her attempt to replace the measure with a "single victim" substitute bill which would have eliminated language defining an unborn child as "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."
Her substitute proposal would have increased penalties for an attack on a pregnant woman by adding a second charge of harm to the pregnancy, avoiding any mention of a second victim.
Although the legislation adopted specifically excludes any application to voluntary abortion, Feinstein called it "the first strike against all abortion in the United States."
The week before the Senate vote Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, urged passage of the bill. "This bill simply ensures that both mother and child are protected from violent assault and murder," he said.
Ruse, responding to attacks on the legislation by supporters of legal abortion, said, "We are grateful to the Senate for ignoring the offensive claims of the abortion lobby and its allies in Congress. Abortion activists may recoil from the acknowledgment of a child's existence before birth, but their efforts to erase the child as a second victim in a violent crime are an insult to all women and families who have lost a loved one to violence."
Maggie Gray, president of the National Council of Catholic Women, said passage of the new legislation "closes a 'justice gap' for unborn children by recognizing their injuries and providing legal redress."
Father Frank Pavone national director of Priests for Life, said the Senate vote "is another sign that our legal system is experiencing a new moment of awareness in regard to the unborn child."