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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2002 / 4 Adar, 5762

Dennis Byrne

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When caring becomes sinister -- MAYBE it is the nature of political discourse, but it seems that anytime social conservatives want to do something beneficial and compassionate for poor people it raises a stink because it supposedly is for unseemly, even, devious reasons.

Consider the Bush administration's recently announced plan to allow states to expand heath care insurance coverage under the State Children's Health Insurance Program to pregnant women for their unborn children. Never mind that the plan would extend prenatal care for tens of thousands of children of low-income wo-men, who may not otherwise qualify.

That apparently wasn't what was important to those who claim moral superiority in "caring for real people" (as opposed to "caring only for fetuses"). National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy saw "a clear agenda" in the move, which is to endow "a fetus with more rights than a pregnant woman." They said health coverage could be expanded without going to the extreme of declaring an unborn person to be a person. And they challenged the Bush administration to just do it, as if to say, "Aha, caught you bums in another lie. You don't care about women or children."

I have a question. If there was such an easy and self-evident way to increase this kind of help for poor women, then why didn't Bill ("I feel your pain") Clinton do it when he was in the White House, controlling the regulatory process?

Everyone, of course, assumed that the Bush administration was doing nothing to increase SCHIP coverage. Others probably just assumed that it was doing everything it could to turn prenatal heath care into guns and ammo. Actually, 4.6 million children who otherwise would not have access to health care were covered under SCHIP during fiscal year 2001--a 38 percent increase from the previous year. Since Bush and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson took over a year ago, the number of people in Medicaid and SCHIP coverage expanded 800,000. This was thanks to 910 new and pending Medicaid and SCHIP state plan amendments and waivers approved by the administration.

The new regulations would allow, not require, states to extend that coverage even more, to low-income pregnant women and their babies--if I may be allowed to use that term. The new regulation would clarify that states may include coverage for children from conception to age 19, clearing the way for pregnant women to receive prenatal and delivery care under the program.

Not a bad deal for a nation that ranked 26th among industrial countries in its infant mortality rate. Importantly, a substantial portion of the program's funds still is unspent. Under Bush's budget proposal, $3.2 billion in unused SCHIP funds due to expire in fiscal 2002 and 2003 would be extended. The fact that billions remain unspent is in itself an indictment.

Still, nothing I could say will change the minds of those who are convinced that social conservatives are uncaring troglodytes who are attempting to sneak one past the public by the ghastly act of declaring that an unborn person is a person.

See, I don't hold it against the Bush administration for fighting for the idea that a person is a person, no matter what its state of dependency, development or age. That's been the American ideal, to extend to all people the rights and privileges that are attached to being a person--whether a slave, a woman, the disabled, the ill or every one of us who has made that journey through the birth canal. Even those who now argue that neither they, nor anyone else, has the right to make that journey.

JWR contributor Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and public affairs consultant. Comment by clicking here.

01/25/02: The unreliable crystal balls of analysts
01/17/02: The curse of 'do-something' pols
01/09/02: Political moderation is for the indifferent, uninformed or undecided

© 2002, Dennis Byrne