Letter to the House Judiciary Committee Urging Opposition to "The Unborn Victims of Violence Act" (H.R. 1997)

Document Date: January 20, 2004

Oppose ""The Unborn Victims of Violence Act"" (H.R. 1997)
During Tomorrow's Judiciary Committee Mark Up

Dear Representative:

The ACLU strongly urges you to oppose H.R.1997, deemed by its sponsors ""The Unborn Victims of Violence Act,"" when it is marked up in the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow. This bill unnecessarily undermines reproductive freedom, when alternative approaches to punishing violent crimes against women exist.

H.R. 1997 would amend the federal criminal code to create a new, separate offense if, during the commission of certain federal crimes, an individual causes the death of, or bodily injury to, what the sponsors call a ""child in utero."" Because H.R. 1997 applies to all stages of prenatal development, it would be the first federal law to recognize a zygote (fertilized egg), a blastocyst (pre-implantation embryo), an embryo (through week eight of a pregnancy), or a fetus as an independent ""victim"" of a crime with legal rights distinct from the woman who has been harmed by a violent criminal act.

The ACLU fully supports efforts to punish acts of violence against women that harm or terminate a wanted pregnancy. This bill is an inappropriate method of imposing such punishment, however, because it dangerously seeks to separate the woman from her fetus in the eyes of the law. It could dramatically alter the existing legal framework, elevate the fetus to an unprecedented status in federal law, and undermine the foundations of the right to choose abortion.

In addition, H.R. 1997 explicitly disavows a mens rea (or criminal intent) requirement with respect to the harm to the fetus and thus is in tension with the Constitution's Due Process guarantees. The bill permits a person to be convicted of the offense of harm to a fetus even if he or she did not know, and had no reason to know, that the woman was pregnant, and he or she did not intend to cause harm to the fetus. Such a result undermines the Constitution's promise of due process.

Criminal interference with a woman's right to bear a child should be prevented and punished. Legislation that imposes enhanced penalties for violent acts that intentionally compromise a pregnancy appropriately punish the additional injury a woman suffers without recognizing the fetus as a legal entity separate and distinct from the woman who has been harmed.

For these reasons, we strongly urge you to vote against H.R. 1997 when it is considered in the Judiciary Committee.


Laura W. Murphy

Gregory T. Nojeim
Associate Director and Chief Legislative Counsel

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