Bush administration allows states to call fetus ‘unborn child’ in order to give mothers coverage
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration handed abortion opponents a symbolic victory Thursday, classifying a developing fetus as an “unborn child” as a way of extending prenatal care to low-income pregnant women.
The plan allows states to extend health insurance to fetuses — or even embryos — from the moment of conception by enrolling them in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Because CHIP is aimed at kids, it does not typically cover parents or pregnant women, although states can get permission to include adults if they ask for it.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the goal was to quickly get more women prenatal health care, which greatly increases the chances of delivering a healthy baby. “How anybody can now turn this into a pro-choice or pro-life argument, I can’t understand it,” Thompson said.
Activists on both sides of the issue did just that.
“This will strengthen the right-to-life philosophy,” said Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, who was attending the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Thompson announced the plan. “It is significant when a multibillion dollar department takes this position.”
Abortion rights supporters agreed, saying the change could help lay legal groundwork establishing the rights of a fetus and therefore outlawing abortion.
“It undermines the whole premise of Roe v. Wade by giving legal status to a fetus from the moment of conception,” said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center.
She and others compared it to the legislation supported by the White House making it a federal crime to harm a fetus during an assault on its mother.
“There’s a pattern here to establish fetal personhood,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. “At the point you establish a fetus is a person under the law, then even first trimester abortion becomes murder, and the Bush administration knows that.”
Bush has offered regular encouragement to anti-abortion forces. He telephoned encouragement last week to anti-abortion marchers on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
“Everybody there believes, as I do, that every life is valuable, that our society has a responsibility to defend the vulnerable and weak, the imperfect and even the unwanted; and that our nation should set a great goal — that unborn children should be welcomed in life and protected in law,” he told them.
Bush has severely limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, giving abortion opponents a partial victory in that area. And he cut funding for international organizations that perform abortions.
He also has called for bans on human cloning, on public funding of abortion and on the late-term procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion.
Thompson, who also opposes abortion, said his only goal is to “help the poor mothers be able to take care of their unborn children.” He said anyone reading a political agenda into the move is “stretching the envelope quite a bit.”
States can already cover pregnant women under their CHIP programs, though they need to get a waiver from the federal government. At least two states — New Jersey and Rhode Island — have waivers to cover them.
Thompson promotes these waivers as an excellent way of expanding health coverage to people without insurance, and he says he has shortened the time it takes for his department to approve state applications.
Still, automatically including the fetus for coverage is even faster, said Kevin Keane, health and human services spokesman.
Keane said he didn’t know what the legal ramifications of the policy would be and said that no one at HHS had investigated the question.
HHS officials said this was not the first time a fetus has been eligible for government benefits. Until 1981, developing fetuses were eligible for Medicaid, allowing for prenatal care, they said.
The new plan does not include any new money for the coverage. Rather, states that want to participate would simply add to their existing programs in which they share the cost of coverage with the federal government. About $3.2 billion in federal CHIP money from the last few years has not been spent and is available for expansion of coverage.
Thompson said he also supports legislation pending in the Senate that would allow states to automatically add pregnant women to CHIP, much as poor pregnant women are eligible for Medicaid. That legislation, which has made little progress, has sponsors including Democrats John Breaux of Louisiana and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Republicans Kit Bond of Missouri and Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Officials expect the new policy to be published in the Federal Register as early as next week. After a 60-day comment period, it would take effect.