WASHINGTON -- President Bush invoked the case of pregnant murder victim Laci Peterson yesterday as he signed legislation expanding legal rights of the unborn, saying, "The suffering of two victims can never equal only one offense."
Bush was joined on an East Room stage by Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, and her stepfather, Ron Grantski. Peterson was eight months pregnant when she disappeared in December 2002. Supporters of the bill have cited Peterson and her unborn son, who was to have been named Connor.
"This little soul never saw light, but he is loved and he is remembered," the president said. "All who knew Laci Peterson have mourned two deaths, and the law cannot look away and pretend there was just one."
Bush gave the bill, an important one to many in his conservative base, the first elaborate signing ceremony of the year. The law makes it a crime to harm a fetus in an assault on a pregnant woman.
"As of today, the law of our nation will acknowledge the plain fact that crimes of violence against a pregnant woman often have two victims," Bush said. "Therefore, in those cases, there are two offenses to be punished."
The bill passed by a 245-to-163 vote in the House and by a 61-to-38 margin in the Senate.
People on both sides of the fetal rights and abortion issue have said the new law will have far-reaching consequences.
Abortion opponents welcome it as a step toward more sweeping protections for the unborn, while abortion rights proponents say the measure represents the first recognition in federal law of an embryo or fetus as a separate person.
Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and Bush's presumptive opponent in this fall's election, voted against the bill.
Bush has said he doesn't believe the country is ready to completely ban abortions; he opposes them except in cases of rape or incest or when pregnancy endangers a woman's life. That position has become a standard line in most of his speeches.
Bush has taken several actions that have pleased antiabortion advocates.
As one of the first acts of his presidency, he reinstated the "Mexico City policy" that bars US money from international groups that support abortion, even with their own money, through direct services, counseling, or lobbying activities.
He has signed legislation that bans certain late-term abortions and that amends legal definitions of "person," "human being," "child" and "individual" to include any fetus that survives an abortion.
He has increased federal support for abstinence education, adoption, and crisis pregnancy programs, placed severe restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research to only a few existing cell lines, and extended state health care coverage to "unborn children."
The measure Bush signed is limited in scope, applying only to harm to a fetus while a federal crime, such as a terrorist attack or drug-related shooting, is being committed against the mother.
A number of states have similar laws, including California, which is trying Peterson's husband, Scott, 31, on double murder charges.
He could face the death penalty if he is found guilty of killing his pregnant wife. He has pleaded not guilty. Lawyers and the judge have completed the second week of questioning potential jurors.