Domestic violence or any violence against women is all too prevalent in today's society. But when a pregnant woman is the victim of assault or something worse, a perpetrator can get away with murder.
That's because under Georgia law, a developing child who is less than 20 weeks old does not have legal rights. A pregnant woman could be assaulted and miscarry, but the perpetrator would only be charged with a crime against the woman - not the child.
That's why I have introduced a common-sense bill in the Georgia Legislature known as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
The bill mirrors a federal law known as "Laci and Conner's Law," passed after Laci Peterson, pregnant with her son Conner, was murdered by her husband Scott Peterson in California. The federal law makes it a crime to commit a violent act against a fetus only if the crime occurs on federal property.
My state legislation would make it a crime to harm a fetus younger than 20 weeks anywhere in the state of Georgia. It would exempt mothers who are considering aborting their fetuses.
Public opinion polls strongly support the concept that there are two victims when there is a crime against a pregnant woman - her and her unborn child.
A 2003 Newsweek poll found that 56 percent of respondents said there were two victims of a crime against a pregnant woman, no matter what stage of the child's development. That same year a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that 79 percent of respondents agreed that prosecutors should be able to charge an attacker with murder for killing a fetus.
As the mother of four children, two of whom I carried to term and two of whom are adopted, I can say that being pregnant is one of the most exciting times in a woman's life. A miscarriage can be devastating, let alone losing an unborn child through a violent act.
That's why our state's feticide laws are not enough. Current law gives prosecutors the ability to charge a perpetrator with two crimes after "quickening" of a developing child, which is 20 weeks. But women know better that this is another life developing inside them.
My legislation would give district attorneys the power to prosecute a battery case against two victims, for example, if a pregnant woman was beaten up by her boyfriend. It would also permit vehicular homicide charges in an automobile collision where a fetus was lost. And it would allow double murder charges, if someone killed a pregnant woman - whether she knew she was pregnant or not. The age of the unborn child would not matter.
Discretion is always necessary when it comes to criminal law. That's why the legislation would not require such charges but give prosecutors the option of prosecuting cases with two victims in case the woman or the perpetrator didn't know if she was pregnant.
Despite opposition from pro-choice activists, constitutional scholars - including those who have advocated for abortion rights - believe such legislation is constitutional. Several state and federal court cases have found that such laws do not conflict with Roe vs. Wade.
In a guest column in The Raleigh News-Observer, Walter Dellinger, a former solicitor general with the Clinton administration, wrote: "Legislatures can decide that fetuses are deserving of protection without having to make any judgment that the entity being protected has freestanding constitutional rights."
Twenty-eight states have enacted laws which recognize unborn children as victims of violent acts while in utero. Crimes range from misdemeanors to felonies, as would the crimes under my legislation.
With bipartisan support for this bill, it would be irresponsible for us to leave this loophole in Georgia's feticide law that recognizes a crime against any unborn child. This is common-sense criminal justice legislation that helps protect those who can not protect themselves.
(State Rep. Sue Burmeister is a Republican who represents parts of Augusta and Columbia County.)
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