A majority of Americans believe that life either begins at conception or when an embryo is implanted in a woman’s uterus, according to a new Newsweek poll.

Fifty-eight percent consider a fertilized egg the beginning of human life, including 12 percent who equate in vitro fertilization with conception, according to the poll.

Twenty-four percent believe human life begins when the unborn baby is “viable,” or can survive outside the womb.

Only 11 percent of respondents believe human life begins at birth.

The findings come amid a brewing debate over whether unborn babies are entitled to individual, legal rights.

As WorldNetDaily reported, the high profile case of Laci Peterson and baby Connor, the mother and unborn son whose remains were found washed up on the San Francisco Bay shore following Peterson’s disappearance Dec. 24., intensified the debate.

Scott Peterson shown in booking photo from Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department

Scott Peterson was charged separately for the murders of his wife and biological son. Under California law, if a pregnant woman is killed and it results in the death of the unborn child, the crime can be ruled a double homicide.

Abortion-rights groups including the National Organization for Women initially voiced opposition to the double-murder charge, saying it could become part of the pro-life lobby’s arsenal.

“If this is murder, well, then any time a late-term fetus is aborted, they could call it murder,” Morris County NOW President Mavra Stark told the Daily Record of Parsippany, N.J.

“There’s something about this that bothers me a little bit,” Stark said. “Was it born, or was it unborn? If it was unborn, then I can’t see charging [Peterson] with a double-murder.”

“[The boy] was wanted and expected,” Stark added, “and [Laci] had a name for him, but if he wasn’t born, he wasn’t born. It sets a kind of precedent.”

But pro-life groups defended the two murder charges.

“Obviously, [the child] was wanted by the mother,” Marie Tasy of New Jersey Right To Life told the Record. “Clearly, groups like NOW are doing a great injustice to women by opposing these laws. It just shows you how extreme, and to what lengths, these groups will go to protect the right to abortion.”

According to the Newsweek survey, 56 percent of Americans agree with the separate murder charge for the killing of an unborn baby. Another 28 percent would allow separate charges in cases where the unborn baby was considered viable.

The majority support for the double-murder charge breaks down to 61 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Independents.

Newsweek reports abortion-rights activists worry the new focus on the unborn baby is part of a broad strategy to undermine the bedrock 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which was interpreted as the legalization of abortion.

“If they are able to make fetuses people in law with the same standing as women and men, then Roe will be moot,” the magazine quotes Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt as saying.

Twenty-eight states have fetal-homicide laws on the books but they vary widely. In many states, the laws take effect only after a preborn is able to live outside the uterus, around 24 weeks. More than a dozen states cover a developing child from the moment of conception or an embryo is implanted.

Congress is attempting to craft a federal standard on the issue, and is slated to take up the Unborn Victims of Violence Act this month, which counts harm to an unborn baby as a separate crime. The House had earlier passed such legislation in 1999 and 2001. The Senate is expected to support the measure this time. Laci Peterson’s family has urged lawmakers to call it “Laci and Conner’s Law.”

The case of a 22-year-old mentally disabled woman who was raped while under the care of Florida child-welfare authorities also weighs into the public discourse on the matter. As WorldNetDaily reported, Gov. Jeb Bush asked a judge to appoint a guardian to represent the interests of the unborn baby. But on Friday, Orange County District Judge Lawrence Kirkwood ruled there was no basis in Florida statutes or case law for such a move.

Meanwhile, a circuit court judge in Miami reversed himself last week on a decision to allow the live birth of a 24-week-old preborn from a disabled woman during surgery to sterilize her and authorized an abortion instead.

Newsweek reports the dramatic breakthroughs in fetal and reproductive medicine also increasingly prompt the question, “When does life begin?”

A recent study estimated 88 percent of the nearly 400,000 embryos created at fertility clinics are set aside in frozen storage for use in the future. Newsweek surveyed sentiment on what should be done with these “leftovers.” Forty-nine percent responded it is OK for an IVF clinic to destroy human embryos with the parents’ approval.

But couples facing the difficult decision themselves wrestle with it, reports Newsweek, citing the dilemma of Sue and John DiSilvestro, who have 5-year-old triplets from IVF and three fertilized eggs in cryostorage. The DiSilvestros disagree over what to do with them. Sue supports giving them to research, while John prefers to donate them to another infertile couple.

“Everything changes once you have kids,” he told the magazine. “I now realize those embryos are my children. It’s a different ball game.”

Previous articles:

Disabled rape victim’s baby aborted

Judge orders abortion for disabled woman

Governor seeks guardian for unborn baby

Laci’s unborn baby
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