The Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-212) is a United States law which recognizes a “child in utero” as a legal victim, if he or she is injured or killed during the commission of any of over 60 listed federal crimes of violence. The law defines “child in utero” as “a member of the species Homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb”.[1]
The law is codified in two sections of the United States Code: Title 18, Chapter 1 (Crimes), §1841 (18 USC 1841) and Title 10, Chapter 22 (Uniform Code of Military Justice) §919a (Article 119a).
The law applies only to certain offenses over which the United States government has jurisdiction, including certain crimes committed on Federal properties, against certain Federal officials and employees, and by members of the military. In addition, it covers certain crimes that are defined by statute as federal offenses wherever they occur, no matter who commits them, such as certain crimes of terrorism.
Because of principles of federalism embodied in the United States Constitution, Federal criminal law does not apply to crimes prosecuted by the individual states. However, 36 states also recognize the fetus or “unborn child” as a crime victim, at least for purposes of homicide or feticide.[2]
The legislation was both hailed and vilified by various legal observers who interpreted the measure as a step toward granting legal personhood to human fetuses, even though the bill explicitly contained a provision excepting abortion, stating that the bill would not “be construed to permit the prosecution” “of any person for conduct relating to an abortion for which the consent of the pregnant woman, or a person authorized by law to act on her behalf”, “of any person for any medical treatment of the pregnant woman or her unborn child” or “of any woman with respect to her unborn child.”
However, the reticence of a federal law to authorize federal prosecution of a particular act committed under federal jurisdiction does not prevent states from passing their own laws against the act committed under their jurisdiction. Meanwhile the definition of all unborn babies as “members of the species homo sapiens” in section (d) says essentially what proposed “personhood” laws say.[3] Sponsors of such proposals say such legal language will trigger the “collapse” clause in Roe v. Wade, by establishing what Roe said must be established for legal abortion to end. [4] Several state supreme courts have ruled that sections (a) through (c) are not threatened by Roe, [5] but no court has addressed whether Roe can survive the triggering of its “collapse” clause by section (d).
The bill contained the alternate title of Laci and Conner’s Law after the California mother (Laci Peterson) and fetus (Conner Peterson) whose deaths were widely publicized during the later stages of the congressional debate on the bill in 2003 and 2004. (see Scott Peterson and Laci Peterson). Scott Peterson was convicted of double homicide under California’s fetal homicide law.