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Bill to give fetuses legal rights gets boost from Laci Peterson case | (KRT) WASHINGTON — Congress is ripping the sensational Laci Peterson murder case from the tabloid headlines to take up a proposed law on Wednesday that mashes the hot-button issue of abortion politics.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives will begin debating legislation that would make it a federal crime to injure or kill a fetus at any stage of development. The bill is likely to pass the House on Thursday, but not before Republican sponsors hold news conferences, Laci Peterson's mother calls lawmakers, and anti-abortion and pro-choice groups sound off about fetal homicide.

Twice before, fetal-rights advocates have won approval from the House, only to have the legislation stall in the Senate. But supporters think public attention to the murder of Peterson, who was eight months pregnant, should help this time. They have named the bill the "Laci and Conner Law" after Peterson and the name she planned to give her son.

"When a criminal attacks a woman who carries a child, he claims two victims. I lost a daughter, but I also lost a grandson," said Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, in a letter to lawmakers urging them to pass the bill.

"It would be a moral poverty for our nation not to acknowledge the victimhood of the Conner Petersons of the world," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

The bill would allow prosecutors to press for federal charges for the injury or murder of "an unborn child" committed on federal lands, in maritime and military jurisdictions, or in conjunction with terrorism, kidnapping or stalking across state lines or 68 other federal offenses.

The measure would give the fetus the same legal status as the pregnant woman. It defines an unborn child as "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."

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Twenty-nine states have already made fetal homicide a crime. However, there's no national consensus on when to give legal rights to the fetus. Some state laws start at conception, others at embryonic development and some at viability. The House bill would start at implantation of an embryo into the womb, which for naturally occurring pregnancies is about a week after conception.

Although the bill explicitly would exempt abortion-related activities, opponents fear the measure would eventually erode Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, because it would give legal status to a fetus at all stages of prenatal development.

The bill is "part of a cynical strategy to keep whittling away at the abortion rights guaranteed under Roe v. Wade and to set the stage legally for its reversal," according to a statement by the National Organization for Women.

"This bill is a wolf in sheep's clothing," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. It's "an assault on women's autonomy and their right to decide," he said during a hearing.

DeLay disagreed: "This bill is not about abortion. It's about justice. We're codifying common sense."

The House passed similar measures in 1999 and 2000, but the Senate never took them up. This year, however, senators may be forced to take a stand because Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he plans to bring up the bill.

Opponents say Republicans are taking advantage of the Peterson case. Her body and that of her fetus, with the umbilical cord still attached, washed ashore in San Francisco Bay following the Dec. 24, 2002, murder. Her husband, Scott Peterson, has been charged with two counts of homicide. The case has received extraordinary national publicity.

DeLay rejected the charge that lawmakers are exploiting that case.

"We have been working on the unborn victims act for years. This is the time for us to do it," he said, adding: "I think the pressure is mounting."

California Democrats Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Sen. Dianne Feinstein plan to offer alternatives that would stiffen federal criminal penalties for violence against pregnant women but not recognize the fetus as a second victim.

That's not enough for supporters. The legislation "is necessary so that a woman who survives a federal crime but loses her unborn baby is not told nobody died," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

The group has arranged for family members of homicide victims, such as Carol and Buford Lyons, to lobby Congress on Thursday. The Lyons' newly pregnant daughter was murdered in Kentucky in January. They also lobbied the Kentucky Legislature to pass its fetal-homicide law.

If enacted, the measure is certain to face legal challenges over when life begins and whether it places the rights of the woman below those of her fetus, according to House Judiciary Democrats.

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© 2004, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services