LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Three young men hired by a pregnant woman's boyfriend kicked her in the stomach and killed her unborn baby, prosecutors charged Sept. 2, as they brought murder charges in the first test of Arkansas' new Fetal Protection Law.

The measure, which became law in August, makes it a crime to injure an unborn child more than 12 weeks old and has a similar purpose as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act currently being considered by Congress. Without the law, prosecutors would have had to limit the charges to crimes against the pregnant woman, who was badly beaten.

Shawana Pace, who was due to give birth any day, said she pleaded for the baby's life as she was kicked, choked and beaten on Aug. 26. She said one of the attackers told her, “Your baby is dying tonight.”

Pace, 23, saw her dead child and named the girl Heaven. “She was a perfect baby, almost 7 pounds. It was like she was just sleeping,” she said in her hospital room, where she was recovering from surgery to remove her spleen. She also suffered a broken left wrist, black eye and bruised face.

The law's proponent, state Rep. Jim Hendren, said it is intended for “just such a situation, where a woman who was planning to have a baby was deprived of that by some criminal action. Hopefully, it will be a deterrent to other people who perhaps will show a little bit more care and concern for pregnant women.”

In a Sept. 8 letter to U.S. House Judiciary Committee members, Gail Quinn, executive director of the Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, urged support of the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

Quinn recalled that witnesses before the Subcommittee on the Constitution recounted in moving testimony how unborn children have been injured or killed during the commission of a federal crime against the mother. Yet such injuries or deaths have gone unpunished. “This makes no moral or legal sense,” she said.

Pace, a junior studying psychology at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, told police she believed the attack was set up by her boyfriend, Erik Bullock, 29. Testimony from the attackers corroborated this theory.

Bullock and the three youths were charged with capital murder, which carries a sentence of life in prison or the death penalty. Arkansas is one of 26 states that, either through state laws or court precedents, allow prosecutors to bring charges in the death of an unborn child.

“If we didn't have this statute at this time, we would be questioning whether or not the fetus is a person,” prosecutor Melody Piazza said.

“It's unfortunate that we have to have laws like this, but in a situation like this it would be a lot worse if we didn't have a law,” Rep. Hendren said.

Arkansas Right to Life, which was the moving force behind the new law, also voiced its concerns about the case. “We are appalled at the callous and blatant disregard for human life that the four individuals displayed as they carried out this alleged murder for hire,” said Rose Mimms, the group's executive director.

Thirty-eight states currently recognize the humanity and legal status of unborn children outside the abortion context.

“It is disappointing that some claim [the federal bill] should nonetheless be defeated to preserve a ‘right’ to abortion,” Quinn said. “Even many abortion proponents have conceded that abortion takes a human life, while demanding that the practice be preserved to protect a woman's ‘right to choose.’ This bill, however, offers an opportunity to protect the unborn child in a way that clearly serves the freedom and well-being of his or her mother, by protecting both parties from violent assault and murder. To oppose such much-needed legislation, simply because it acknowledges a truth about unborn life that almost everyone already knows anyway, would be a terrible injustice.”

Quinn, while not commenting on the Arkansas case, urged that the U.S. House consider all victims of crime, whether born or unborn.

“The Unborn Victims of Violence Act will enable the federal government to recognize that when a pregnant woman is assaulted or killed within its jurisdiction, and her unborn child is harmed or killed as a result, the crime has two victims — the woman and her child,” Quinn stated.