The Unborn/Abortion Smokescreen

How these issues hide the Bush Administrationís assault on children and women

As the administration promotes the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, known now as the Laci and Connor Law, much attention is being paid to the possible threat this legislation poses to Roe v. Wade. This Act would create a separate federal offense if, during the commission of certain crimes, an individual causes the death of, or bodily injury to a "child in utero." It explicitly applies to all stages of pregnancy and creates a federal law recognizing everything from a zygote to a fetus as an independent "victim," with legal rights distinct from the woman who has been harmed. Unwittingly, pro-choice activists who respond by focusing on how this bill might undermine the right to choose abortion may be playing into the administration's hands; the debate on abortion creates a brilliant diversion from the administration's failure to protect either children or women. Indeed, when it comes to women the administration is establishing a pattern -- women do not deserve to be protected or valued in their own right. It is only through their fetuses that they are entitled to any protection. The Act does not make it a federal crime to attack pregnant women and indeed its sponsors have explicitly rejected proposals to protect the woman herself under federal law. It has long been known that violence against women increases during pregnancy. This is not an expression of a distinct hatred of fetuses; it is a reflection of a society that tolerates extraordinary violence against women and girls. Men who beat their pregnant wives understand that the pregnancy, the desired child, is often the most important thing in the world to that woman. What better way to make the woman suffer than to be able to cause her both excruciating physical pain and to lose what she value's most in life? The administration's unwillingness to protect the pregnant woman herself is also apparent in its recent successful efforts to expand the States Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to expand coverage to unborn children but not to pregnant women. At the time this proposal was made, Secretary Thompson indicated that he also supported proposed legislation that would give the states the option of covering pregnant women directly. He asserted that the redefinition of child to include "unborn children" was not a substitute for such legislation. Rather, he claimed, that by using the regulatory processes to change the definition of child, the administration would be able to expand funding for prenatal care more quickly than they could through the legislative reform efforts to expand coverage for pregnant women. Once child was redefined to include the unborn, Secretary Thompson did an about face. He now insists that there is no need to expand coverage directly to pregnant women. Indeed, Secretary Thompson says that the regulation that provides coverage for all the health needs of the "unborn child," but for only a fraction of the needs of pregnant women, "is a more effective and comprehensive solution to the issue." The new regulation omits any and all coverage for pregnant women's postpartum care, (being sewn up after a c-section or episiotomy) omits care for women's health problems unrelated to the pregnancy melanomas, broken legs), and covers pain medication only because the woman's pain might threaten the safety of the fetus during delivery. Secretary Thompson, as he made clear in a letter to Senator Nickels, now asserts that legislation that would cover pregnant women fully and in their own right would "duplicate what we have already established as administration policy." Much of the opposition to the SCHIP regulation like the opposition to the Act focused on how it would threaten Roe v. Wade. But increasingly, this seems to be exactly what the administration wants. As long as we are debating Roe the administration's more fundamental disregard for women and children remains well camouflaged behind the abortion smokescreen.

The Act is unlikely to do anything to address the pervasive and unrelenting violence against women. While in many cities the crime rate has dropped dramatically the only crime not down is domestic violence. It is unlikely that the proposed law or the abortion debate around it will result in more funding for battered women's shelters or a national campaign to address the social and cultural underpinnings of this pervasive violence against women. It is likely however that it will be used to punish women themselves. Many states already have laws similar to the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. These laws have been used repeatedly to justify the arrest and punishment of pregnant women who have alcohol or drug problems. Their health problems during pregnancy are increasingly being viewed and prosecuted as crimes against the unborn. States with such laws on the books have not however changed the fact that nearly half of all people who want drug treatment cannot get it and that pregnant women are second-class citizens when it comes to access to what little drug treatment there is. Similarly, the expansion of SCHIP to the unborn has done nothing to change the fact that the United States remains the only western industrialized country not to have a national system of health insurance, leaving 43 million Americans, including 10 million actual children without health care coverage. The debate about abortion seems to take up the space that might be devoted to addressing why America is one of only six nation in the world that does not require a paid maternity leave or why 22% of America's already born children live in poverty. While the likelihood of Roe's demise is debated, massive tax cuts are forcing some schools to limit hours, putting public school children further behind and programs designed to support women and children are being cut. Of course, none of this is to say that abortion isn't an issue. Sponsors of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the SCHIP regulation are increasingly willing to admit that these laws will help their efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade. But we need to see past the abortion smokescreen. Behind it are issues around which political consensus is much more likely: the absence of and desperate need for a real commitment to America's mothers and children

National Advocates for Pregnant Women
Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director
153 Waverly Place, 6th Floor New York, New York 10014
212-255-9252, 917-921-7421

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