Sneak Attack

February 04, 2002

By: Bob Herbert, New York Times, February 4, 2002

They tried to camouflage the action. Bush administration officials presented it as an altruistic attempt to bring badly needed health care benefits to low-income pregnant women. It was actually a guerrilla attack on abortion rights.

Alarm bells automatically go off when this administration claims to be helping the financially disadvantaged. So you knew something had to be up when the Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that it had figured out a way to provide prenatal care to low-income women who might not otherwise be eligible.

This would be done, officials said, by broadening the definition of a "child" eligible for coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program. The meaning of "child" would be clarified, the officials said. Under the new rules, childhood would begin not at birth, but at conception.

Adorned with the new definition of "child," the fetuses would become eligible for the health coverage.

The health and human services secretary, Tommy G. Thompson, said this would be a boon for poor women. He said it "would help poor mothers be able to take care of their unborn children and get the medical care they absolutely, vitally need."

He chose his words carefully. "Unborn children." Get it?

Abortion opponents have been trying for the longest time to get embryos and fetuses defined as persons under the law. They believe it would be much easier to criminalize all abortions if embryos and fetuses were established in law as children.

So while Mr. Thompson was crowing about what a boon this was for poor women, it was the anti-abortion crowd that was celebrating. Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee said, "We applaud this Bush administration proposal to recognize the existence of an unborn child in order to allow the baby, and the mother as well, to receive adequate prenatal care - a concept to which only the most extreme pro-abortion ideologues will object."

The truth is the decision had little to do with the health care of women. It was a political move, pure and simple. It was the Bush administration's way of sending a message to the right- wingers of the Republican Party: Don't give up hope. We're committed to undermining abortion rights.

You don't have to torture the definition of the word child to give health benefits to low-income women. For example, coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program could be extended to pregnant women via a simple legislative change, or by waivers to existing rules. That would be the common-sense way to go if the real goal were meaningful prenatal care.

Harmful and in some cases bizarre conflicts can develop when embryos and fetuses are designated legally as persons. Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, noted that pregnant women could end up in tragic conflict with their fetuses if the fetuses had the legal rights of people. For example, what rights would prevail if a pregnant woman had cancer and needed radiation or chemotherapy treatment that would be destructive to the fetus?

"This is not about health care for women," said Ms. Michelman. "It's all about politics. It's about undermining a woman's right to choose, disguised as health policy."

Lynn Paltrow, director of a group called National Advocates for Pregnant Women, believes much more than the threat to abortion rights is at stake. She described the Health and Human Services proposal as "cynical," and said it helps divert attention from the administration's failure to support a wide range of initiatives to improve the delivery of health care to women and children.

She added, "This maneuver to create insurance for unborn children both personifies the fetus and accentuates the fact that women themselves are neither full persons under the law, nor valued enough to be funded themselves."

This rules change by Health and Human Services, which does not need Congressional approval, is both devious and dangerous. It exemplifies the administration's right-wing allegiance, and its contempt for the poor.

There are more than 40 million Americans walking around without health insurance. About 11 million are children. If the administration wanted to do something about extending health benefits, it could start with some of them.