A panel of Nevada lawmakers heard impassioned testimony Friday from pro-life and pro-choice activists about a bill whose sponsor said he had no intentions of starting an abortion debate.
But that's what happened when the groups faced off during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on SB299, sponsored by Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas.
The bill would delete Nevada's current law on fetal homicide, which says anyone who willfully kills a fetus by injuring the mother is guilty of felony manslaughter, punishable by one to 10 years in prison.
Hardy said the current law is insufficient since it only protects fetuses that have reached a viable stage. Under his proposal, any injury or death to a fetus - other than a legal abortion - would constitute a separate offense.
Last year, a pregnant woman in Hardy's district was hit by a drunken driver, injuring her and causing a miscarriage. But because the fetus had not yet reached a viable stage, the driver could only be charged with battery, said Hardy.
"Is it any wonder that this family does not feel justice is being served?" asked Hardy. "I feel we as a state can and must do better than that."
Hardy stressed that while he is pro-life, he did not want to start a debate about abortion. But he acknowledged that "it's not possible to address this without touching on the tender issue of fetal viability."
Representatives of Planned Parenthood, the League of Women Voters, and National Organization for Women all opposed the bill, while pro-life organizations, including Nevada Right to Life, supported it.
The bill's opponents said that if supporters want to increase penalties for those who hurt pregnant women, they should do just that. But they said supporters were trying to establish "fetal personhood" under the law, and using violence against women as a way to fight against abortion.
"This bill is proposed with this specific language because its sponsors purposely oppose certain freedoms of Nevada citizens, and the language can be found on the Nevada Right to Life web site," said Jessica Brown of NOW.
If the bill truly was not meant to spark an abortion debate, it should use medical language, not the term "unborn child," said Kathleen England, an attorney who works with Planned Parenthood.