Bush Pushes for Fetal Insurance

ByLaura Meckler

W A S H I N G T O N, July 6, 2001 -- The Bush administration is poised to classifya developing fetus as an "unborn child" eligible for governmenthealth care, giving low-income women access to prenatal care whilebolstering the administration's anti-abortion rights credentials.

Abortion rights advocates call it a backdoor attempt toundermine Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision thatguaranteed the right to legal abortion.

The plan, now under review, would make the fetus eligible forservices under the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

Specifically, states could consider a fetus "a targetedlow-income child" and therefore pay for prenatal care and childbirth expenses, according to a draft letter now being reviewed byHealth and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

"It is well established that access to prenatal care canimprove health outcomes over a child's life," says the letter tostate health officials from Dennis Smith, director of the Centerfor Medicaid and State Operations at HHS.

Two-Sided Debate

Abortion rights advocates countered that it's not the fetus thatis served by prenatal care but the mother.

"This is the most cynical of politics, and once again, theadministration trying desperately to satisfy the demands of the farright wing," said Kate Michelman, president of the NationalAbortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

She added that the policy seems to be an attempt to set aprecedent establishing the fetus as a person under law, "leadingto the criminalization of all abortions."

She and others said they, too, want to provide more prenatalcare, and encouraged the Bush administration to support legislationexpanding the children's health program to pregnant women. Rep.Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said she would reintroduce legislation doingjust that next week.

Meanwhile, the National Governors Association warned HHS thatwhile some states will embrace the new option and some willimmediately reject it, other states will face divisive battles overwhether to go along.

The HHS letter notes that the new policy would not take effectuntil after it was published in the federal register, givinginterested parties the opportunity to comment and assuring avigorous debate over the matter. At the same time, Planned Parenthood said it was investigating its legal options, hoping to file suit stopping the regulation.

"This is a long way from a done deal," said the group'spresident, Gloria Feldt.

A leader of abortion opponents dismissed the notion that theadministration move would have much impact, saying federal lawalready recognizes rights of unborn fetuses.

"I certainly don't think it's going to have any sweeping impactin other areas of the law," said Douglas Johnson, legislativedirector for National Right to Life.

HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said the goal is to expand access toprenatal care and give states more flexibility in running theirprograms, not to promote an anti-abortion agenda.

"States don't have to do this," he said.

Pro-Life Platform?

The review comes as the administration contemplates anotherhigh-profile issue important to abortion opponents: whether toallow federal funding for research using stem cells that come fromembryos. Abortion opponents are lobbying President Bush to ban thisfunding, while Thompson privately lobbies for it.

Pierce said the two issues were unrelated, but he did not denythat allowing "unborn children" into the health program could bea boon to those who believe that a fetus is a person withindividual rights.

"If the question is, is the secretary pro-life, the answer isyes," he said. "So is the administration."

States may already cover pregnant women under the healthprogram, known as CHIP, but they have to get specific permissionfrom HHS since CHIP was designed for children, not adults.Similarly, several states have won permission to cover the parentsof children in the program.

Medicaid, which covers the poorest Americans, already requiresstates to cover pregnant women with incomes up to 133 percent ofthe poverty line, and many states include women with higher incomesin their Medicaid programs.

CHIP, created in 1997, is targeted at children whose familiesearn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy healthinsurance on their own.

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