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Bush Plan for Fetal Health Care Sets Off Storm

U.S. says it's needed; critics say it's an anti-abortion ploy

FRIDAY, Feb. 1, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The Bush administration's plan to provide government health coverage to fetuses set off a wave of angry dissent from women's groups, who see the initiative as an attempt to undermine abortion rights swaddled in regulatory wrapping.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, called the White House move a "callous political endeavor to personify the fetus at the expense of women."

"I think we all agree that we want to increase access to health care for anybody and everybody in this country," Paltrow says. But the president's initiative "distracts attention from the fact that women are not valued as full persons under the law."

The initiative, announced yesterday, encourages states to offer health coverage to pregnant women -- from the moment of conception -- through the existing State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

"While Medicaid already provides prenatal care for many low-income women, there are still tens of thousands every year who are not eligible under current regulations until after their child is born, or who may even then not qualify under Medicaid even though their child will indeed qualify under SCHIP," Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement. "The change we are proposing would make SCHIP resources available to states immediately to expand prenatal care for low-income women."

HHS estimates that almost 11 million women of childbearing age lack health insurance.

Begun in 1997, the $40 billion SCHIP program has offered government health insurance to low-income children from birth to age 19. In the past, states could apply for federal waivers to extend SCHIP coverage to pregnant women, and two -- Rhode Island and New Jersey -- did so last year. The latest initiative doesn't cut off the waiver route, but it would make it less cumbersome to states to apply the new policy.

Conservative and religious groups applauded the White House plan. "This is a good decision that will protect the health of mothers and children," Cathleen Cleaver, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.

Thompson made the announcement at a meeting of a conservative political action group. He also unveiled a $33 million bump in abstinence-only sex education programs in the Bush administration's proposed budget. The raise would bring total spending on such programs to $135 million.

"Endowing a fetus with more rights than a pregnant woman is more than a back-door attempt to restrict abortion rights," Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said in a statement. "It's also a slap in the face to women everywhere."

Grandy and other advocates pointed out that Bush last year proposed cutting block grants to states that offer women health coverage regardless of whether they're pregnant, and he sought to freeze funding for the Healthy Start program. Healthy Start supports efforts to reduce low-birth weight and other risks for infant mortality among the poor.

Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the two measures together "equal 'The Handmaid's Tale'," a reference to Margaret Atwood's futuristic novel in which women are only permitted to have sex for reproduction.

Feldt says Planned Parenthood will "very seriously" consider a legal challenge to the SCHIP plan.

As for the abstinence-only programs, Feldt says there is "absolutely no evidence" they work.

"We don't think that ignorance is bliss in any other areas of life. Young people need information and they need skills for how to abstain from unwanted sex. But they also desperately need medically accurate, age-appropriate and comprehensive" sex education," she adds.

What To Do

To learn more about the latest White House initiatives, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For more on family planning issues, try the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. For the other side of the coin, visit the National Right to Life Committee.

SOURCES: Interviews with Lynn Paltrow, executive director, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, New York; Gloria Feldt, president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, New York; statements by Kim Grandy, president, National Organization for Women; Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
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