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'Unborn child' coverage moves ahead

Abortion rights advocates oppose the new regulation

From Catherine Berger (CNN Washington)

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration took the final step Friday in allowing states to classify a fetus as an "unborn child" so low-income women can qualify for prenatal care -- a move that infuriated abortion rights advocates when it was first announced in January.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson issued the final regulation, which will take effect when it is published in the Federal Register on October 2. Thompson called it a "common-sense, compassionate measure" because "prenatal care is one of the most important investments that we can make to ensure the long-term good health of our children and their mothers."

The regulation allows states to expand eligibility to cover a fetus under the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) without having to receive a waiver from HHS. According to HHS, New Jersey and Rhode Island have already obtained waivers to cover fetuses under the SCHIP, but the new regulation would make the path to such coverage faster.

"With this new regulation, states can offer prenatal coverage immediately -- without waiting for HHS to consider and approve a waiver," Thompson said. "It represents a speedy new option for states that want to do more to ensure that women get critical prenatal care that will increase the chances that their children are born healthy."

Anti-abortion rights groups hailed the move.

"This action by the Bush administration means that many unborn children, and their mothers as well, are now eligible to receive proper prenatal care as part of this children's health program," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

But abortion-rights advocates see it as a "dangerous development" because benefits are provided to the fetus and not the woman.

"It's the first time in federal regulations that we have the fetus designated as a person for the purpose of receiving benefits," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "They chose to do it this way for one very clear reason and that is to contribute to the body of law and regulations that will help eliminate a woman's right to choose,"

She also said the regulation could create a conflict between the interests of the woman and the interests of the fetus. For instance, if the pregnant woman has cancer and needs radiation treatment, who do doctors focus on?

It is "just wrong for the federal government to be creating such a potential conflict of interest," Michelman said.

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