by Cathy Deeds
September 17, 1999
An Air Force airman beats up his 8-months-pregnant wife so badly that their unborn child dies as a result. An Arkansas man hires thugs to beat his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach to deliberately kill the child he did not want. Three pregnant women die in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. What do these tragic cases have in common?
Each of these real-life cases clearly involves two victims: the pregnant woman and the child growing in her womb. These examples, and many others, cry out for recognition of the unborn child as a crime victim. "Fetal homicide" laws which protect the unborn child, either throughout pregnancy or during later stages, have been enacted in about 24 states, a majority enacted in the 1990s. Such laws acknowledge that the child in the womb is a distinct human being deserving legal protection -- a reality that even the U.S. Supreme Court allows to be recognized in law, so long as such laws are not used to forbid abortions. Where a crime against a pregnant woman results in prenatal injury or death, the law may punish two crimes with separate penalties.
Despite positive activity at the state level, an anomaly exists in federal law. When a pregnant woman is assaulted or killed within a federal jurisdiction (e.g., on a military base) and her unborn child suffers injury as a result, federal law punishes only the harm done to the mother. But now many in Congress are trying to correct this. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act (H.R. 2436) sponsored by Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) extends federal protection to the "child in utero" in these situations. It does not change or override state laws in this area, but declares for the first time that an unborn child can be a victim of a federal crime.
Although such laws specifically disclaim any application to abortion practice -- as they must do, so long as the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision stands -- pro-abortion groups have nonetheless attacked them as violating Roe. Because fetal homicide laws acknowledge the unborn child as a human being with a right to be protected from violence, opponents fear such laws will lead to abortion restrictions and threaten a woman's "choice." But in fetal homicide cases, a third party has committed a crime, to which the pregnant woman obviously has not consented -- in fact, the crime is committed first of all against the woman herself. The Roe court did not rule on injury to unborn children outside the abortion context -- and it claimed it was not deciding "when human life begins", leaving states free to act in this area.
Abortion aside, people like Michael Lenz, whose wife Carrie was killed with her unborn child in the Oklahoma City bombing, deserve justice and acknowledgment that he not only lost his wife to this crime but he lost his child as well. This attack on the Murrah Federal Building would fall under the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Lenz summed up his feelings this way when he testified on July 21 before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution: "I lost the two people I loved most that day, and the official death toll for the Murrah bombing remains at 168. In addition to Carrie, there were two other expecting mothers in the building that day that died ... In my mind 171 people lost their lives that day, and three 'Daddies to be' became widowers."
The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Unborn Victims of Violence Act between now and the end of October. Please consider making your views known to your Congressman/woman in Washington.
Cathy Deeds is a public policy analyst with the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.