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Lansing — A fetus or embryo could be considered a victim of a violent crime for sentencing purposes under a bill the state House approved Thursday.

The bill passed 63-44, mostly along party lines, with one Democrat voting for it — Rep. Brian Elder of Bay City. The bill would legally consider a fetus or embryo a “person” when it comes to sentencing violent offenders, according to the legislation.

Under state law, any crime against a person requires a scoring of points based on the number of victims who are endangered by property loss, physical injury or death. A fetus or embryo would be counted among the victims when a judge considers a prison sentence for a convicted assailant.

A higher number of points usually leads to a harsher sentence under the state’s guidelines.

Democrats on Thursday bristled at the suggestion that fetuses should be considered as people in criminal sentencing, re-opening a divide with socially conservative Republicans who have argued that fetuses are people.

Democrats said the legislation is a backdoor continuation of the abortion battle that would additionally put more people behind bars for longer at a time. The state’s $2 billion Corrections Department budget is already under pressure from long prison sentences, although the number of state inmates has been declining.

“This bill will place one more brick in the wall of our prison industrial complex,” said Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids.

LaGrand told reporters later that anti-abortion groups are driving the legislation because they can later send out scorecards of lawmakers’ stances on such issues to potential voters.

“This is a red flag being waved, and you can see that the vote went down exactly as a certain interest group is going to scorecard it,” LaGrand said. “And it’s unfortunate, from my perspective, that we can’t do good policy when interest groups weigh in heavily. I don’t think that there’s an intellectually coherent argument for a yes-vote on this bill, given that judges can already score this.”

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-Dewitt, accused LaGrand of trying to politicize an issue he said is really about protecting mothers and their children.

“There he goes and there the Democrats go playing politics again,” Leonard said. “As a former prosecutor, I have seen people commit absolutely heinous crimes against citizens, particularly women. And this does nothing more than give a judge discretion; if someone commits a heinous crime and hurts a baby, it allows them to take that into consideration.”

The legislation, sponsored by freshman state Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, would codify a recent ruling of the Michigan Court of Appeals that a fetus could be counted as a victim without declaring the fetus to be a person, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.

But the bill goes beyond that ruling when it states: “For purposes of this section, an embryo or fetus must be counted as a person.”

Hornberger called the bill “common sense legislation that will protect women and unborn children from being victims of crime.”

The opinion came in a 2016 case in which the defendant pleaded guilty to feloniously assaulting his pregnant girlfriend. Counting the fetus as a victim added 10 points to the sentencing score and increased the defendant’s sentencing guidelines range from 12 to 24 months imprisonment to 14 to 29 months imprisonment.

The bill would require the fetus or embryo “be counted as a person” in determining the number of victims affected by the crime, according to the agency analysis.

“Although the judiciary has made their statements and they do hold precedent, we, as a legislative body, make also the determination as to what should be on the statute books,” said Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township.

“And I believe that the statement today was, ‘Yes, we believe that these are victims, these babies, are victims and should be counted as such when you’re talking about sentencing guidelines.”

mgerstein@detroitnews.com

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