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Regulation change sparks abortion debate

The Bush administration aims for a clarification in child-care regulations  

By Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration said Thursday it wants to let states classify a fetus as an "unborn child" so low-income women can qualify for prenatal care -- a move that has infuriated abortion rights advocates.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement that the goal of the regulation change is to provide health care services for pregnant women who would not be eligible otherwise. In what it billed as clarification, the administration shifted the definition of "child" to include those "from conception" to age 19.

"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 the State Children's Health Program, or SCHIP, Thompson said in a statement.

The change would make a fetus eligible for health care under that program.

The U.S. government is likely to stir up the debate over abortion rights when it clarifies its definition of what a child is. CNN's Kelly Wallace reports (February 1)

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"The change we are proposing would make SCHIP resources available to states immediately to expand prenatal care for low-income women," Thompson said.

The move immediately rekindled the debate over abortion,with abortion rights groups calling it a political ploy aimed at eventually making abortions illegal.

"The Bush administration's proposal demonstrates its commitment to the strategy of undermining a woman's right to choose by ascribing legal rights to embryos," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

"Anti-choice, anti-family planning officials are directing [the] president's health care policy," she added.

Administration officials denied that abortion politics are a factor in their decision. Rather, they noted that states had to return $3.2 billion in SCHIP funds to the federal government last year because they were not able to spend the money. The change would expand eligibility, thereby letting states use more of those funds.

"In our minds, this is not an abortion issue," said Kevin Keane, an HHS spokesman. "This is a common sense way to allow states to use some of that SCHIP money, not just for women."

Keane questioned how abortion rights supporters could oppose this move, since he said abortion rights activists fight for better prenatal care for women.

Still, Thompson made his stand against abortion clear on Thursday, at a speech he gave at George Washington University Hospital, where he was speaking about public health grants.

"Our nation should set a great goal that unborn children should be welcomed in life and protected in law," he said.

President Bush also opposes abortion. One of first acts in office last year -- on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- was to sign an executive order banning federal funds to international family planning groups that offer abortion or abortion counseling.

The administration's support for allowing states to define an "unborn child" as eligible for health care coverage first surfaced last July in a draft policy. It was immediately viewed with skepticism by abortion rights groups, who suggested it was an effort by abortion foes within the White House to create legal recognition for the fetus.

Thursday's news that the administration was about to follow through on that policy change was greeted with praise from opponents of abortion rights.

"We applaud the proposal," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. "The proposal would recognize the existence of an unborn child in order to allow a baby and the mother to receive adequate prenatal care."

Currently, the SCHIP program provides health care coverage to qualifying low-income children under the age of 19. The proposed regulation change, to be published in the Federal Register within a week, would "clarify that states may include coverage for children from conception to age 19."

The change would be open to public comment for a period of 60 days after it is published.

"Prenatal services can be a vital, life-long determinant of health and we should do everything we can to make this care available for all pregnant women," Thompson said. According to HHS, there are an estimated 10.9 million women between the ages of 18 and 44 who do not have health insurance.

Gloria Feldt, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, questioned the administration's sincerity.

"If the goal really was expanding prenatal access, they would say we're going to cover more pregnant women," she said.




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