Federal Bill To Protect Unborn Victims of Violence

WASHINGTON -- For the first time, many acts of violence against unborn children would be prohibited by federal law under a major new pro-life bill introduced on July 1 by Congressman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) with the strong backing of NRLC.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act (H.R. 2436) would provide stringent federal penalties -- in some cases, life in prison for the crime of injuring or killing an unborn child during the commission of acts already defined as federal crimes.

Most assaults and homicides are prosecuted by state governments. However, there are also scores of federal laws dealing with acts of violence. Many of these laws protect employees of the federal government, including those in military service and their dependents. Others apply to crimes that occur within federal geographical jurisdictions, such as ships at sea or military bases. Still others apply to certain types of acts of violence, such as terrorist bombings.

Thus, it is already a federal crime to attack, injure, or kill any of the millions of women who fall under the protection of these laws. But right now, it is not a federal crime to injure or kill the unborn child of such a woman.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act would change that. Under the bill, if a person commits a violent act against a woman that is already a federal crime under existing law, and also injures or kills the unborn child of such a woman, he will be charged with crimes against two victims the woman and the unborn child.

"For the first time, the unborn child would be recognized in federal law as the victim of a crime of violence," explained NRLC Federal Legislative Director Douglas Johnson.

The bill provides that the punishment for injuring or killing an unborn child would be the same as the punishment, under existing federal laws, if the same conduct had resulted in the same degree of harm to the mother. This would result in federal prison sentences for convicted offenders, ranging from up to three years if an unborn baby suffers a minor injury during a simple assault on a federal employee, to life imprisonment for many cases in which the baby dies. The new bill does not, however, establish any death-penalty offenses.

Because the bill does not deal with the legality of abortion, it does not conflict with U.S. Supreme Court decisions currently in force. Therefore, the bill should be upheld in the courts, if challenged. Thus, the protection of dozens of existing federal laws, dealing with crimes such as assault, manslaughter, and homicide, would be extended to unborn children.

"The Unborn Victims of Violence Act is definitely a right-to-life bill, and a very important one that recognizes the humanity of unborn children and protects them against many heinous crimes," said Johnson.

"We expect a tough fight to enact the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, because most pro-abortion lobbying groups will probably strongly oppose it," Johnson added. "These groups are driven by grim ideology that demands that the unborn child remain invisible in the eyes of the law a non-entity."

The bill challenges that ideology by recognizing the unborn child as a human victim, distinct from the mother. The bill says that whoever violates an existing federal anti- violence law "and thereby causes the death of, or bodily injury to, a child, who is in utero at the time the conduct takes place, is guilty of a separate offense" separate, that is, from the offense against the mother.

Congressman Graham, who consulted with NRLC in the formulation of the legislation, is a former Air Force prosecutor with a long interest in bringing to justice those who do violence against unborn children. Mr. Graham sits on the committees to which the bill has been referred, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution and the Armed Services Committee.

Graham introduced the bill on July 1, with Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Congressman Charles Canady (R-Fl.) as original co-sponsors. Smith is the co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, while Canady is chairman of the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee, one of the panels to which the bill has been referred.

Canady's staff indicated that the subcommittee would conduct a public hearing on the legislation soon. Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Il.), the chairman of the full Judiciary Committee, has also expressed strong support for the bill.

"This bill will be a good indicator of where we are as a society," Congressman Graham told NRL News. "I hope every Member of Congress finds it morally and legally offensive to destroy a child in the womb through an act of violence against the mother."


Enactment of the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act would be a landmark pro-life victory but it would not diminish the need for strong laws to protect unborn victims at the state level. The federal government has no jurisdiction over the great majority of assaults on pregnant women, and the bill will not change that.

Currently, there is a wide divergence among the states in how they treat unborn children who suffer injury or death during such assaults.

Twelve (12) states now have laws under which unborn children are recognized as victims, for criminal law purposes, throughout the period of their pre-natal development. Most of these laws have been enacted because of the initiative and lobbying efforts of state NRLC affiliates, with the assistance of the NRLC State Legislative Department.

Fifteen (15) additional states recognize the unborn child as a victim only during part of the pre-natal period usually, during the later months of pregnancy.

At least 16 other states operate under an archaic legal doctrine known as the "born alive rule," under which injuring an unborn child is not a crime unless she manages to survive birth, at least briefly. In these states, if the assailant's acts cause the baby to die in utero, the law does not recognize the baby as a victim.

"Enactment of the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act is extremely important, because federal anti-violence laws affect large numbers of people, including the military," said NRLC State Legislative Director Mary Spaulding Balch. "However, we must continue to work to pass strong legislation to protect unborn victims in each and every state that does not already have such a law, because the protections of state laws against assault and homicide apply to far larger populations."


The need for the Unborn Victims of Violence Act is amply illustrated by the facts of a case (United States v. Robbins) argued before the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces on May 12, 1999.

In 1996, Gregory Robbins, an enlisted man in the Air Force, and his wife Karlene (then age 18) resided on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, a jurisdiction governed by federal military law. Also residing there, in utero, was Jasmine Robbins, an unborn baby girl of 34 weeks of development.

On September 12, 1996, Gregory Robbins wrapped his fist in a T-shirt and badly beat Karlene, repeatedly striking her in the face and abdomen. Karlene's uterus split open, expelling baby Jasmine into her mother's abdominal cavity, where the baby died. Karlene survived with a broken nose, swollen eye, and ruptured uterus.

Gregory Robbins was arrested and charged with several criminal offenses for what he'd done to his wife. But Air Force prosecutors concluded that they could not charge him with a separate offense for killing Jasmine, because an unborn child is not recognized as a victim under federal law.

That judgement was concurred in by the U.S. Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals in a 1998 ruling dealing with the Robbins case. The court said, "Federal homicide statutes reach only the killing of a born human being . . . . [Congress] has not spoken with regard to the protection of an unborn person."

By enacting the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, Congress would speak directly to that question.

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