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National NOW Times >> Spring 2004 >> Article

Bush Signs Law Granting Personhood to Fetuses

by Jessica Greenfield, Communications Intern

On April 1, 2004, George W. Bush added his signature to yet another piece of deceptive legislation designed to weaken women's reproductive freedom. Now a federal law, the so-called Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA) establishes a fetus or embryo from the moment of conception as a separate victim in federal crimes, for the purpose of granting legal personhood to the fetus and setting up an eventual conflict with Roe v. Wade.

On Jan. 22, 2004, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced into Congress the Freedom of Choice Act, which would protect abortion rights from stealth attacks like the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Boxer is shown here speaking at a reception the evening before the March.
On Jan. 22, 2004, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced into Congress the Freedom of Choice Act, which would protect abortion rights from stealth attacks like the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Boxer is shown here speaking at a reception the evening before the March. Photo by Christy Bowe
"The sponsors of this cynical bill are trying to redefine the Fourteenth Amendment to U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection of the law to 'persons,'" said NOW President Kim Gandy, "a constitutional protection which has never been defined to include fetuses." This law, while ostensibly including an exception for legal abortion, nonetheless sets a collision course with Roe, the 1973 case in which the Supreme Court held that a fetus is not in the legal sense a "person" within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Sponsors of the legislation claim that increased penalties for these violent crimes will protect more battered pregnant women from abuse and even death. But these claims proved hollow when UVVA supporters in both the House and Senate voted to defeat amendments proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., that would have increased the penalty for a crime committed against a pregnant woman but would exclude from the text the language that establishes the fetus as an "unborn child."

"If our government wants to address the pervasive problem of violence against pregnant women, they need to pass increased funding for education and for enforcement," said Gandy. "Any injury inflicted on a woman, pregnant or not, should be prosecuted as a crime against the woman."

Although supporters of this bill have attempted to conceal the obvious ramifications for Roe v. Wade, President Bush made clear at the signing that this legislation is part of his effort to build a "culture of life" (as he defines it) in the United States. Feminists know that the culture Bush seeks does not include reproductive freedom and access to a full range of health services for women.

In a speech on the anniversary of Roe, Gandy said: "Conservative forces have been chipping away at the rights guaranteed in Roe v. Wade for more than two decades. The most vulnerable women among us—young women, poor women, rural women—have suffered the brunt of these attacks. During the last three years, the war against women's reproductive freedom has been stepped up dramatically. Now George W. Bush and the right-wing led Congress are literally signing away women's reproductive rights."

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