The legislation that passed 74-35 would allow prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against a second victim besides the expectant mother, even if neither the woman nor anyone else knew she was pregnant.
“If there’s two victims, there’s two victims,” said House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake.
The legislation is named "Ethen's Law" for the baby 22-year-old Jenna Nielsen was carrying when she was murdered in 2007 outside a Raleigh convenience store.
Supporters said the move puts North Carolina in step with 35 states and the federal government that recognize an unborn child as an additional victim. Laws in nearly two dozen states say crimes against the fetus can come at any time after conception.
"I have to tell you I had a big smile when I walked out of there today knowing that we finally passed the first hurdle," Nielsen's father, Kevin Blaine, said.
Blaine says it's a good piece of legislation that helps right a wrong.
"You find out that the person could be prosecuted for your daughter's murder, but won't be prosecuted for unborn grandson, I mean, that's just adding insult to injury," Blaine said.
Nielsen was 8-and-a-half months pregnant with a boy she was planning to name Ethen. The search for her killer continues.
"He's still out there, he's still at large," Blaine said.
But he says the law would give the family a sense of justice.
"This for us brings a positive to a very bad negative," he said.
The proposed legislation makes clear that the provisions don’t apply to legal abortions. But opponents described the measure as the new Republican majority’s gift to conservatives who believe life begins at conception.
“This bill is a wish list for people who want to say life begins at conception,” said Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake.
Bill sponsor Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, said his intent is to punish people for harm caused to expectant babies that parents and grandparents have already invested with meaning and personality. The measure next heads to the Senate.
The proposed legislation would expand to the rest of the state a law already in effect on federal property like Camp Lejeune and the Blue Ridge Parkway, Folwell said. The federal law was approved in 2004 after the 2002 death of a pregnant California woman, Laci Peterson.
Prosecution under the federal law is uncommon -- in part because murder cases are typically tried in state courts.
"I'd like to say that this'll never happen again, but unfortunately, it will and I don't want another family to have to go through what we've gone through," Blaine said.
Opponents say the measure is a gift for those who want to say life begins at conception, but Blain says Ethen's Law isn't about abortion, it's about justice.
"Everyone deserves to be guarded and to be protected and those who take those rights away from others should be punished for it," Blaine said.
The measure also would repeal an existing state law that raises the criminal penalty for assaulting a woman the attacker knew was pregnant. That drew complaints that the expectant mother was diminished by giving the fetus parallel standing as a victim.
Now the bill heads to the Senate. It has to clear there before it reaches Governor Beverly Purdue's desk. Blaine hopes to see it pass this year.
“That’s the distinction. The mother matters,” Ross said.