Fetal Rights and Women's Health

Social conservatives routinely argue that life begins at conception and that the fetus is therefore a person. The Bush administration has consistently endorsed that position. It now plans to up the ante and grant fetuses rights it has consistently denied to others. The administration's late January regulatory proposals on children's health care, now undergoing public comment, pose enormous risks not only for women but for the unborn as well.

The administration has proposed that states classify the fetus as an ''unborn child'' to make it easier for low-income women to receive prenatal care. States that classify fetuses as unborn children would become eligible for health care under the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The program is funded jointly by the federal government and the states and in most cases has not applied to pregnant women.

The administration argues that although President Bush firmly believes in the personhood of the fetus, the sole aim of this proposal is to improve poor women's access to prenatal care. Gary Bauer, head of the Campaign for Working Families, has argued that: ''only the most pro-abortion ideologue would object to it. In a very practical way, this will be very helpful for poor women.''

Skepticism as to the administration's motives is well founded. If the administration's goal were solely to improve access to prenatal care, there are other and better ways to achieve that end. The chances for a healthy baby depend on more than prenatal care. The health of the mother heading in to pregnancy surely improves the chances of her offspring. Yet, as Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, reminded the press, Bush last year proposed cutting block grants to states that offer women health coverage regardless of whether they're pregnant. And even in the case of pregnant women, he sought to freeze funding for the Healthy Start program, a Federal initiative to reduce low-birth weight and other risk factors for infant mortality among the poor.

The administration is blackmailing both poor pregnant women and fiscally strapped states. It says to both, yes you can have health care -- if you play by our moral rules. A pregnant woman with other underlying health issues can receive help -- if she is willing not merely to accept the definition of the fetus as a person but to give this fetal person priority even over her own health. Her ability to receive medical help depends on her willingness to carry the pregnancy through to term even if that pregnancy entails other risks to her health she would otherwise not run. And a state can receive Federal assistance -- if it collaborates in enforcing these same requirements.

The administration's subtle game here exposes some of the deeper implications of the cultural struggle over the status of the fetus. The so-called pro-life position has always involved two claims. Not merely is the fetus a person, but in the language of long time Village Voice columnist Ellen Willis, that person has a right "to appropriate someone else's body for its own use." Willis correctly points out the extraordinary and highly inegalitarian nature of this burden. No male, for instance, "can be forced to donate a kidney or undergo such an innocuous procedure as giving blood, even to save a life … What right to lifers are really demanding is that we make an exception for fetuses -- or rather continue making the same exception that's always been implied in women's traditional obligation to nurture human life."

As Willis also correctly points out, it is but a small step from saying that one's health care depends on carrying pregnancy to term to state surveillance of the full life of the mother. If the woman drinks, smokes, is overweight, is this not endangering the life of the child and shouldn't remedial legal redress be imposed?

Neither Willis nor I would deny that a woman choosing to have a child should do what she can to assure that child's future health. But actions by government to enforce such obligations threaten us with the worst forms of big brother. Such actions are also premised on the false notion that most women choosing to have a baby don't care about their offspring. Finally, the very level of intrusiveness implied in the "fetal rights" movement will lead many women who are beset with drug or other health problems not to seek the help they need.

If the Bush administration really cares about women and the unborn, there are far more just and appropriate steps it could take. Providing access to health care for all poor and uninsured women would be a start. More basically, hunger and poverty have a strong correlation with low birth weight children. Addressing these conditions would improve the prospects of the next generation without reducing women to child-bearing vessels and mere vassals of the state.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at

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