Washington Expanding rights for the unborn without limiting mothers' reproductive rights is an issue that confronts lawmakers this week when the House takes up a bill that would make it separate federal crimes to injure or kill both a woman and her fetus.
The Unborn Victims of Violence Act is regarded by conservative groups as one of the most important social policy measures that could come before Congress this year.
"It's a step in the right direction, toward recognizing the humanity of the unborn," said Genevieve Wood, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council.
The National Right to Life Committee cites polls showing that 80 percent of the public believes there should be a law recognizing the killing of a fetus as a homicide.
Opponents see the legislation as another attempt, after last year's ban on a procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion, to curtail abortion rights.
The legislation would allow prosecutors to charge a person with two murders for killing a woman and her fetus, or with murder for an attack that kills the fetus but the mother survives. The proposal would apply only to federal crimes, such as terror attacks, interstate stalking or cases that occur on military bases or federal land.
The bill specifically precludes from prosecution those who carry out legal abortions.
Already passed twice by the House, in 1999 and 2001, the measure is expected to win approval again when it comes up Wednesday or Thursday.
Abortion-rights groups see it differently. "We believe that it is a deceptive and callous attempt to undermine the right to choose," said Evelyn Becker, spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The concern is that giving a zygote, an embryo or a fetus the same rights as a person could lead to future assaults on the Roe v. Wade court decision affirming a woman's reproductive rights.