Topeka — A proposed "Alexa's Law" for protecting mothers-to-be and their fetuses won first-round approval Thursday in the House, despite questions from abortion rights supporters about whether it's needed.
The bill, advanced on a voice vote, would make it possible to charge someone with murder, manslaughter, vehicular homicide or battery for killing or harming a fetus. It says the definition of "person" for those specific crimes includes an "unborn child" at "any stage of gestation from fertilization to birth."
Although such proposals have been considered before, this year's measure was inspired by the murder of a 14-year-old Wichita girl and named for her near-term fetus whom the family had named Alexa.
Abortion rights supporters are suspicious because abortion opponents back the bill, and its passage is an important goal for Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group. Also, abortion rights supporters noted, the state has laws enacted in 1995 making it a crime to harm a pregnant woman.
However, the bill's backers said they want the criminal law to recognize that when a pregnant woman or girl is harmed, two separate individuals have been attacked.
"The victim's family recognizes it," said Kathy Ostrowski, who lobbies for Kansans for Life. "The medical community understands it. The legal community understands it. It's two distinct DNAs."
Rejection of two alternatives crafted by abortion rights supporters suggested the bill has enough support to pass the House either today or Monday, and go to the Senate where it faces an uncertain future.
Similar legislation won House approval in 2002 and 2005, only to die in the Senate without a committee vote.
Thirty-five states have some law making it a crime to kill or harm a fetus, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including Alabama, California, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio. However, laws vary from state-to-state, and not all apply from conception.
In Kansas, backers of the proposed "Alexa's Law" point out that the family of the teenage girl, Chelsea Ann Brooks, support it. The proposal has its own Web site.
Chelsea's body was found in a shallow grave in Butler County in June, and three suspects were accused of involvement in the strangling. One, a juvenile, pleaded guilty to a capital murder charge, while two adults await trial.
Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, showed off petitions signed by nearly 6,000 people in favor of the bill, generated by the Web site.
"It truly is people rising up across the state," Brunk told colleagues. "They're ready to call you, but for the moment, I've intercepted them."
The bill specifically exempts doctors performing abortion, but abortion rights activists still worry that it represents a first step toward banning the procedure. They found it telling that supporters named the measure after the fetus and not the girl.
"It's not about abortion? I beg to differ," said Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka. "It about the unborn child. Nobody's talking about the 14-year-old girl."
Added Julie Burkhart, a lobbyist for the abortion rights group ProKanDo: "If we're interested in providing justice to victims, we need to start out by respecting the women who give life and it's unfortunate that in this bill, there is not focus on the violence that is done to women."
Abortion rights supporters twice proposed amendments to replace the proposed "Alexa's Laws" with proposals for increasing penalties for criminals who harm pregnant women. Both amendments failed, though they embodied an approach supported by Attorney General Paul Morrison, an abortion rights Democrat.