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In Charged Debate, House Passes Fetus Protection Bill

By Juliet Eilperin

The House of Representatives approved legislation Thursday making it a crime under federal law to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman, the first in a series of abortion-related measures that conservatives plan to offer to take advantage of President Bush’s election.

The bill passed 252 to 172, with 53 Democrats and one independent joining 198 Republicans in backing a proposal that supporters said would help prosecutors combat the growing problem of violence against pregnant women. Opponents called the bill a backdoor attack on abortion rights because it effectively would define the fetus as a separate person.

Sponsors of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act said they hoped it would be the first of several abortion-related measures they can now enact into law because they are no longer opposed by a Democratic president.

“I think there’s been a shift from pro-abortion votes to more of a middle ground,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C). Other measures, such as a ban on abortion procedures that opponents call “partial-birth,” could soon follow, he added.

The circumstances surrounding the vote underscored how dramatically Bush’s election has altered the abortion debate on Capitol Hill. An identical 1999 measure that passed the House by a similar margin stalled in the Senate under a veto threat from President Clinton. This week, the White House issued a statement endorsing the legislation, saying Bush “supports protection for unborn children.”

“Now we have a president who will sign anti-choice legislation,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, (D-Colo.), who opposed the measure. “Every member of Congress is on the front lines, both House and Senate.”

With its passage in the House, the battle shifts to the evenly divided Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

During Thursday’s emotionally charged House debate, proponents deliberately avoided using the word abortion to characterize the bill. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) cited a recent University of Maryland study showing that homicide ranks as the leading cause of death among pregnant women.

“This is not an abortion bill,” Sensenbrenner said. “Killing an innocent unborn child should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

But abortion rights advocates said it demonstrated the GOP’s determination to dismantle the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

“Everyone in this chamber understands what is going on here today,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-N.Y.). “The majority did not bring this bill to the floor to protect pregnant women. The majority brought this measure to the floor today to launch its battle to end a woman’s right to choose in the 107th Congress.”

Lawmakers engaged in contorted linguistic arguments to buttress their respective positions on whether the measure would change existing abortion law. “The only people who have anything to fear from this bill are criminals who engage in violence against pregnant women and their unborn children,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, (R-Ohio).

Opponents pounced on such language, arguing it revealed the underlying intent of the bill’s backers. “The whole purpose of this bill is precisely to label an unborn fetus ... a person in the whole sense of the word,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). “Therefore, it is an abortion bill.”