Today in 2004: The Unborn Victims of Violence Act is passed by U.S. Congress

March 25, 2011

Today in Legal HistorySeven years ago, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act was passed in the U.S. Senate after the House passed it a month earlier.

It was passed in the wake of the Scott Petersen trial for the murder of his wife Laci and unborn child Conner (thus the act’s alternate title, “Laci and Conner’s Law”).

Interestingly, although the act was passed in response to the Scott Petersen trial, the law would not have applied in his case if it were passed earlier.  It only applies to crimes under federal jurisdiction, and Petersen was subject to California state jurisdiction (which already had a similar state law).

By itself, the law seems innocuous.

It simply creates a separate criminal offense against anyone who causes an involuntary termination of another’s pregnancy in the course of committing another federal crime.  Additionally, it expands the federal murder, manslaughter, and attempted murder/manslaughter statutes to protect the unborn.

Of course, in the context of the abortion debate, the law takes on an added flavor.

The central point of contention of the act is that it recognizes an unborn child at any stage of development as a human person, at least for the purposes of legal protection from murder.

Abortion rights activist have claimed the act as a tactic to increase the levels of legal rights recognized in the unborn.

Despite the law’s controversy, it has yet to be exercised.

The only two cases involving the law are Rivers v. Berry and Carlin v. U.S., neither being criminal cases.

Unborn Victims of Violence Act signingRivers v. Berry involved a prison inmate trying to bring criminal charges against two individuals for causing his girlfriend’s miscarriage in 1986 through “mental pressure.”  The inconsequential case was dismissed.

Carlin v. U.S., however, raises some interesting issues.

The suit was brought by an unrepresented individual against the U.S. government seeking two things: to void one section of the law, and repeal the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.

The section of the law that Carlin sought to have removed exempted abortions from the law’s reach.  Carlin argued that this section was in “direct contradiction with The Act itself.”

Carlin raises an interesting point here: how can the early termination of pregnancy be murder in one circumstance, but a legal medical procedure in another?

Of course, in the legal world, things aren’t so commonsensical.

The law essentially created a new definition of unborn, existing separately from the current one.  What is abortion in one circumstance is first-degree murder in the other; the definition hinges only on the process, not the end result.

If this principle is legally viable, where is the line drawn?

The court didn’t resolve this question, though.  They simply dismissed the claim for Carlin’s lack of standing.

In the end, the law remains a controversial piece of legislation in an area of law that is far from settled.