Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Drawing New Lines over Rights of Unborn ; Congress Clashes over Bills Dealing with Limits on Abortion, Violence against Fetuses, and RU-486

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Drawing New Lines over Rights of Unborn ; Congress Clashes over Bills Dealing with Limits on Abortion, Violence against Fetuses, and RU-486

Article excerpt

While the big guns in Congress are still firing on issues like tax cuts and education reform, a more subtle legislative battle is shaping up that could reopen the most volatile issue in American politics - abortion and the rights of the unborn.

The key battle is likely to come when President Bush has an opportunity to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court. A new justice could well tip the balance on a new challenge to the historic Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

But a series of controversial bills making their way onto the floor of Congress are chipping away at assumptions of that 1973 decision.

Last week the House passed and the Senate is poised to take up a landmark bill protecting unborn victims of violence. Other bills in the wings include:

* Restrictions on access to mifepristone (RU-486), the abortion pill, a drug that replaces surgical abortion.

* A ban on so-called partial-birth abortions.

* Limits on access to abortion for minors.

Sponsors of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act framed their bill as a crime-fighting measure. They say it fills a gap in federal law that fails to recognize that violence against a pregnant woman affects both the woman and her unborn child - and the assaulter needs to answer for crimes against both. Some 24 states have enacted similar laws in the past decade.

Ulterior motive?

Opponents say it's a thinly veiled assault on the basic principles of reproductive rights for women. A law that creates a separate category of crime for a "child" in utero is supporting the concept of "fetal rights" - a major legislative goal of the anti- abortion movement. It is also setting up a battle for the future between the rights of women and the rights of the unborn in abortion cases, they say.

"We are in the midst of the greatest threat to Roe v. Wade since 1973," says Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood. "I could be part of a generation that both won and lost the right to choose."

Anti-abortion groups were big players behind the scenes in the House debate on the bill concerning unborn victims of violence. The cases they cited focused on assaults on women who were close to the end of their pregnancies. The National Right to Life Committee circulated a photo of a Wisconsin woman holding her son, Zachariah, at his funeral. The assault occurred four days before the child was to have been born, and the group added its own caption: "Can anybody honestly tell me there is only one victim in that picture?"

But the House bill has a wider reach, covering all stages of a pregnancy. It also imposes higher penalties - as much as life imprisonment - even if assailants don't know a victim is pregnant.

"The statute is quite noncommittal and unspecific as to when does pregnancy commence," says abortion law expert David Garrow, a historian at Emory University in Atlanta. …

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