The Unborn Smokescreen

This month, the Department of Health and Human Services officially published its proposal to extend the State Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to "unborn children," by redefining "childhood" as starting at conception. The HHS department is currently seeking comment on this issue. Thus far, the public response to this Bush Administration plan has centered on the effect this policy will have on women's right to choose an abortion. While this controversy may seem to put the heat on the Administration, it is, in fact, exactly what they wanted. It has created a smokescreen to hide what the Administration really is or isn't doing.

Behind the smokescreen, the extension of the CHIP program to unborn children allows the Administration to claim that it has come through on a commitment to improving health care and protecting America's children. But let's examine what health care in America looks like when the smoke clears.

Approximately 43 million Americans, including about 11 million children, lack health insurance. Today, only 3.3 million (approximately 57%) of the eligible children are enrolled in the CHIP program, nationwide. Further, recent news reports indicate that, due to budget deficits, many states are cutting or capping the funding for these programs, meaning fewer children will be able to enroll. (Indeed, when George Bush was governor of Texas, he opposed the CHIP program and today Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured children of any state.) The program does not cover pregnant women at all, unless they are under 18 .

The Bush Administration has claimed that renaming unborn fetuses "children" is a quick and efficient mechanism for expanding CHIP coverage to more pregnant women. (They have not, thus far, proposed a program to cover more children.) But this approach will cover only the fetus, not the woman, so any injury or disease she suffers that does not directly affect the pregnancy will not be covered, nor will she be covered if she suffers a miscarriage or stillbirth, as more than 900,000 women do each year.

In the larger health care picture, this newest proposal isn't going to do anything to change the fact that the United States remains the only western industrialized country not to have a national system of health insurance. While the fanfare reigns over the expansion, the proposed rule admits that they expect no more than 30,000 unborn children to be covered, leaving millions of actual children (those pesky ones who have already been born) still uninsured. Nor will it help the 22% of America's already born children who live in poverty. It will do nothing for the children languishing in foster care because most child welfare dollars go to removing children rather than preserving family life. Or for the 200,000 children whose mothers are in prison, many under drug laws that imprison women who need drug treatment that the government has deliberately chosen not to make available.

Of course, none of this is to say that abortion isn't an issue. The fact that the Bush Administration's plan does so little to help the uninsured and so much to reinforce the view that embryos and fetuses are to be valued as persons while pregnant women are not is consistent with their efforts to undermine Roe v. Wade and access to contraceptive services worldwide. But we need to see past the smokescreen. Behind it lies the truth: this administration is not committed to America's health care or their children.

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