The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 68/No. 14           April 13, 2004  
New law is aimed at pushing back women’s right to choose
(front page)
In a measure that opponents of women’s rights are using as an argument for further attacks on the right to choose abortion, the U.S. Senate approved a bill March 25 decreeing that a fetus has legal rights under federal law.

The bipartisan legislation, approved in a 68-38 vote, would add an additional federal offense for those convicted of harming or killing a fetus in the course of a violent crime against a pregnant woman. In February the House of Representatives passed a similar version of the misleadingly titled “Unborn Victims of Violence Act.” President George Bush has said he will sign it into law.

Supporters of women’s rights say this and other ongoing efforts to undermine reproductive rights are why they are working to build a turnout of tens of thousands for an April 25 march on Washington to defend the right to choose.

Rita Haley, president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, said the demonstration will send a loud message “that we’re not going to tolerate going back to the past.” She said that in New York alone an entire Amtrak train has been reserved and reduced train and plane fares have been arranged to get to the march.

The bill states that a fetus is “a member of the species Homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.”

Defenders of a woman’s right to choose have noted that such laws will be used to undermine the right to abortion by treating the fetus as a person from conception. “These measures don’t seem to me to be inspired solely to protect a woman or her pregnancy,” said Kate Michelman of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “The goal is to gain separate legal recognition of the fetus.”

The Senate vote comes just months after the passage of the misnamed Partial-Birth Abortion Act, which outlaws a specific medical procedure used to perform late-term abortions. In a victory in the fight to defend abortion rights, on March 26 a federal appeals court in Chicago rejected a Justice Department demand for abortion records from Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The police agency had said it needed the records as part of enforcing the new law, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that turning over the records would violate the privacy of the women who had had abortions at the Chicago hospital. Legal challenges initiated by the National Abortion Federation, Planned Parenthood, and others to the anti-abortion law began March 29 in three separate cases—in New York, San Francisco, and Lincoln, Nebraska.

Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision decriminalizing abortion, there has been a concerted effort by capitalist politicians to curtail a woman’s right to choose. Those attacks have fallen most heavily on working-class women.

The 1977 Hyde Amendment denied Medicaid funding for abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the woman.

Today only 21 states provide funding for abortions. The result is that some two-thirds of women annually pay for the procedure themselves.

The lack of access to abortion has particularly affected working people in rural areas. Less than 15 percent of counties in the United States have an abortion provider, and in nonmetropolitan areas the figure is only 3 percent.

Parental consent laws, which require young women to get permission from their parents to obtain an abortion, are now in effect in more than half the states. Mandatory waiting period laws in some states require women to wait up to 24 hours between “counseling” and an operation. The lost time from work, child-care needs, and travel significantly increase the cost beyond the $350 to $500 for the least expensive first-trimester abortion.

While Senate backers of the bill claimed abortion was not at issue in the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, they displayed photos of blood-covered fetuses along with quotes from women describing violent attacks against them—scare tactics identical to those used by opponents of a woman’s right to choose.

The Senate bill applies solely to crimes on a federal level, but 31 states have put similar measures on the books to extend or expand the legal status of a fetus. Some provide such legal coverage to the fetus from the moment of conception, while others define it from the time a fetus is considered “viable.”

Supporters of the law to protect “unborn victims” have called it “Laci and Connor’s Law,” after Laci Peterson, a pregnant California woman who was murdered in December 2002. She had intended to name her child Connor. Based on California law, her husband is facing two murder charges—one for Laci Peterson and one for the fetus.

The Senate had earlier defeated by a 50-49 vote an alternate amendment to the bill, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, which would have given prosecutors the power to double the charges for a crime committed against a pregnant woman. The amendment would not have granted legal status to the fetus, but would have made possible one charge for harming the woman and another for harming the pregnancy.  
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