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Senate passes 'fetal homicide' bill

CONCORD - A person who causes the death of an unborn child could face murder charges, under a controversial bill passed by the Senate on Thursday.

The 18-6 vote on House Bill 217 moves the measure closer to becoming law; the House passed its own version of the bill in January.

There are, however, significant differences between the two bills, particularly regarding at what stage they define 'another' - the term used for a person in the state's homicide statutes.

The Senate-approved bill applies the laws to a 'fetus' just beyond the embryo stage, at about eight weeks, according to bill sponsor Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford.

The bill passed by the House in January applies to the death of a fetus 24 weeks or older.

The Senate bill is substantially different from the one endorsed earlier this month by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which used the term 'unborn child' to refer to an embryo or fetus and would have applied the homicide statutes from conception.

Forsythe said it was important for the bill to steer clear of positing a new definition for when life begins.

'We've tried hard in this amendment to respect Roe v. Wade,' he said, referring the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.'This is not a pro-life or pro-choice issue.'

Doctors and licensed medical professionals who perform abortions would not face charges under both the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The Senate opted for Forsythe's bill over a proposed amendment that would have used the definition of a 'viable fetus,' a point beyond the 20th week of pregnancy.

Sen. Fenton Groen, R-Rochester, cited his own family in explaining why he opposed such a measure. 'I have a daughter who is 20 weeks pregnant. If she were attacked and the baby was killed, it would be nothing but assault against the mother,' he said.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, joined other Democrats in criticizing Forsythe's bill. 'I think it establishes a bad precedent. It establishes a non-scientific basis for homicide. It establishes a slippery slope, defining a fetus as early as eight weeks,' she said.

The bill is patterned after similar fetal homicide legislation that has been supported by pro-life advocates and passed in at least 38 states.

As originally proposed, both the House and Senate bills would have applied murder charges starting at conception, which prompted concerns that it could lead to prosecutions even when a mother is unaware she is pregnant and could even apply to situations when a woman is undergoing in-vitro fertilization.

The Legislature first considered a fetal homicide bill in early 2010, after the state Supreme Court overturned one of the negligent homicide convictions against a drunk driver who struck a taxi in 2006, killing a passenger and leading to the death of the unborn child of the taxi driver.

The court ruled that the latter conviction against Joshua Lamy was invalid because state law did not allow the jury to consider the child as a live human.

The House defeated the bill in 2010 by a vote of 219-122.

Gov. John Lynch appears likely to veto the bill passed by the Senate on Thursday - although it was passed by a wide enough margin for an override, in the Senate at least.

'The governor told legislative leaders he would be open to a bill based on a standard of viability,' said spokesman Colin Manning. 'He has very serious concerns about the bill that passed (Thursday).'

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