California cases impact raging fetal rights debate

September 13, 2003 

A national debate raging over fetal rights has been influenced by two central California tragedies, more than three decades apart.

The latest was sparked after Modesto's Laci Peterson was reported missing on Christmas Eve. She was eight months pregnant with a boy she called Conner, and proposed legislation has been subtitled Laci and Conner's Law in their honor.

The earlier killing occurred when Robert Harrison Keeler of Stockton encountered his ex-wife in 1969 on a rural Amador County road. Upon learning she was pregnant, Keeler said, "I'm going to stomp it out of you" and attacked her abdomen. He was not the father.

A baby girl was delivered stillborn at a Stockton hospital. Keeler could not be prosecuted for murder, the California Supreme Court ruled the following year, because state law penned in 1850 didn't cover an unborn child as a human being.

State legislators quickly updated the language. Subsequent changes clarified that a fetus past the embryonic stage, generally accepted as seven or eight weeks, qualifies for protection.

At the time, only four states had fetal murder laws. Now, 26 do.

Laws in California and eleven other states cover fetuses that have reached a certain point. Fourteen states cover unborn children at any stage of development.

Congressional lawmakers this year approved Laci and Conner's Law, which would allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for killing a fetus during the commission of federal crimes.

A similar bill in the U.S. Senate has had a rougher go, though sponsors hold hope of a floor vote soon. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act would cover a fetus at all stages of development.

Opponents to both bills charge Republicans with trying to erode abortion rights, though the bill would exclude abortions.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is sponsoring a competing bill that would allow an extra charge for attacking a pregnant woman.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

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