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Prenatal Coverage Plan Stirs Abortion Debate

The Bush Administration is floating a new plan to extend federal prenatal and birth coverage to women in the ranks of the working poor.

It's a subject of controversy, but what's at issue is the coverage. The wording of the proposal is stirring up an abortion debate.

White House officials heralded the plan as a way to provide prenatal care for women who fall through the cracks--too poor to buy insurance but not poor enough to qualify for Medicare.

In a draft letter leaked to the media, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson proposed that an unborn child may be considered a "targeted low-income child" and therefore eligible for the federally funded Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The plan immediately heated up the abortion debate. Critics accused President Bush of attempting to erode abortion rights by placing concerns for the fetus above those of the mother.

"What they are saying is that 'the child' includes an unborn child from the moment of conception," says Laurie Rubiner, of the National Partnership for Women. "That sets legal precedent on its head because we have never conferred personhood on a fetus."

Abortion rights groups complained that pregnant women could easily be covered by a waiver in the CHIP program. The Administration agrees but says this proposal cuts through all the red tape involved with waivers. And while the White House said the letter was "not a philosophical statement," anti-abortion groups endorsed it as a needed recognition of the rights of an unborn child.

"Any reasonable person looking at this is going to say, "'This is a good thing,'" says Laura Echevarria, of the National Right to Life Organization. "They are extending prenatal care to both women and children. Everybody benefits."

The proposal does not require the consent of Congress, but it must first go through a public comment process before taking effect.
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