For all the clamoring in favor of an end to partisan politics in Washington, a vote in the United States House of Representatives on April 26 proved that bipartisanship does not guarantee good legislation.
The Fetal Protection Act, the second upset for abortion rights groups since Bush took office, cleared the House with a 252 to 172 vote, with relatively large numbers of both Democrats and Republicans crossing party lines. The bill would make it a separate crime to kill or harm a fetus in the process of violating another federal law. The measure seems a noble proposition, but in reality it amounts to a shady attempt to lay the groundwork for overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which protects a woman’s right to choose.
Currently, 24 states have laws on the books that make it a crime to kill or harm a fetus, but only after viability is reached — approximately 20 weeks into pregnancy — and only if the assailant is aware that the woman is pregnant. Under this federal law, fetal rights would kick in at the moment of conception and criminals would be prosecuted, regardless of any prior knowledge of the woman’s pregnancy. Despite the fact that the law would not apply to a woman who harms her own fetus, passage of the bill would be a significant step toward changing the way Americans think about abortion.
Legislation that states life begins at conception, and defines a zygote as a person with rights, is a threat to a woman’s privacy and the first step toward outlawing abortion. Under the proposed law, a woman cannot be punished for receiving an abortion, but there is nothing to say that a doctor cannot be prosecuted. Fetal protection is not wrong in and of itself, but like any other issue, there is a right and wrong way to go about it.
The House rejected an alternative bill proposed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. The bill would have mandated significantly more severe penalties for criminals harming or killing a fetus without necessitating prosecution of a separate crime or taking the unnecessarily invasive step of assigning the fetus the same rights as its mother. This is the same strategy that has worked well in enforcing hate crime legislation and there is no reason fetal protection, along appropriate lines, should not be expanded to the national level. But the bill at hand is not appropriate and will have serious repercussions if passed.
The Fetal Protection Act will likely be upheld by the majority conservative bloc of the Supreme Court if passed and challenged, and the consequences of limiting a woman’s right to choose could stand for decades. During his campaign for the Oval Office, Bush said that he would support such a bill if it were placed on his desk, but the measure still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where opposition is strong. Lois Capps, our local representative in Washington, who is a pro-choice advocate, abstained during the House vote when she should have voted no. Now students must write to and call upon senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to take a stronger position and work to block this harmful piece of legislation.