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Florida Catholic Conference’s ‘Offenses Against Unborn Children’ bill introduced in state Legislature

State legislators have introduced a new bill that has been popular among anti-abortion advocates for years. The bill would redefine the death of a “viable fetus” as the death of an “unborn child,” and would also change laws for vehicular manslaughter involving a pregnant woman.

In the state House, state Rep. Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, and state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, introduced the “Florida Unborn Victims of Violence Act.” State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey introduced the bill in the Senate.

House Bill 137 amends state statutes to say that “vehicular homicide … is the killing of a human being, or the killing of an unborn child, by any injury to the mother, caused by the operation of a motor vehicle by another in a reckless manner likely to cause the death of, or great bodily harm to, another.” The offense would be considered a second-degree felony, and would not require that the person know the woman involved was pregnant.

Such “Unborn Victims of Violence” bills, or fetal homicide bills, are championed by many anti-abortion groups, including National Right to Life. Ahern tells The Florida Independent that the bill he introduced was handed to him by the Florida Catholic Conference.

The Florida Catholic Conference has been successful at lobbying for stricter abortion restrictions in the state. This year, the group gave policy-makers an amendment to the state’s Medicaid overhaul that allows providers to opt out of providing “family planning services” for “moral or religious” reasons. Advocates for women’s health care have said the policy could create more barriers to health care access for low-income women.

The Florida Catholic Conference says the new bill revises Florida statutes’ “outdated definition” of life and makes the state’s definitions consistent with “military statutes and current science.” In 2004, anti-abortion groups successfully lobbied federal lawmakers to pass the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which President George W. Bush signed. The bill was originally drafted in part by National Right to Life. The law, however, only applies to federal and military crimes. As of May 2011, 27 states have approved laws that are similar to the federal law, recognizing fetuses at all stages of development as victims.

Sheila Hopkins, associate director of social issues for Florida Catholic Conference, says the new bill revises Florida statutes’ “outdated definition” of life. She says the bill would make the state’s definitions consistent with “military statutes and current science.”

According to Ahern, the Catholic Conference has been asking legislators to pass such a law for a few years. Ahern says the bill would “more accurately define life” and would make sure that the life “of an unborn child is more protected.”

The attempt to “define” life is what typically draws opposition from reproductive rights and civil liberties advocates.

In 2003, during discussions over the proposed federal law, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a press release that the law “would be the first federal law to recognize a fetus at any stage of development, from conception forward, as an independent ‘victim’ of a crime with legal rights distinct from the woman who has been harmed by a violent criminal act.”

According to the group’s 2003 press release:

“Anti-choice forces claim this is simply a greater deterrent to violent offenders, but there can be no doubt that it’s a cunning attempt to separate the fetus from the woman in the eyes of the law and public opinion,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington National Office. “Were this legislation to become law, it could become part of the larger effort to undermine a woman’s right to direct the course of her own reproductive life.”

Last year, North Carolina passed a similar bill, which the ACLU of North Carolina pointed out was “described on the House floor as recognizing the fetus as a person.”

Ahern, however, says that the debate has more to do with updating the terms used in a courtroom with “current science,” and not challenging state or federal abortion laws. “I hope that we will be a little bit smarter with our science,” he says.

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