Jewish World Review July 18, 2001 / 27 Tamuz, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

A good idea runs into ideology -- COULD we all agree that the time to start thinking about children's health is before they're born? Isn't it only good sense to make prenatal care and safe deliveries available to all?

One way to do that would be to expand the bureaucratic definition of a "targeted low-income child'' to the unborn. That way, they -- and mom, too -- would be eligible for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that began in 1997 and now is offered by many states.

Here in Arkansas, the Medicaid program already recognizes mother and child as eligible for health coverage. Every state should. Which is just what Tommy Thompson, the new secretary of Health and Human Services, is proposing.

To quote Dennis Smith, who coordinates Medicaid with state programs: "This would mean that regardless of the age of the mother, eligibility for the unborn child may be established, thereby making services including prenatal care and delivery available.''

Who would argue with that? Aren't we all in favor of healthier babies, and therefore healthier children, and therefore a healthier population? The abortion lobby would argue with that. It sees this proposed change in policy as some kind of sneaky way to protect the unborn, or even recognize them as persons with, G-d forbid, rights. Who knows where that might lead?

Listen to Laurie Rubiner of the ironically named National Partnership for Women and Families, which is now trying to deny women and their prospective families health insurance:

"This is a backdoor attempt by the Bush administration to perpetuate its opposition to abortion rights. The real goal is to establish a legal precedent for granting personhood to fetuses.''

That's how the abortion lobby talks. Unborn children are never called unborn children, but always Fetuses. Lest they sound, well, human. Granting personhood to fetuses, they insist, is something the government must not do.

Some of us, on the other hand, believe that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them the right to life. And that government may choose to recognize those rights or deny them, but not grant them. For those rights are inherent and unalienable. They do not originate with the state but Elsewhere. It is not the state but another Power that creates persons. That we believe.

But why should this philosophical difference -- as basic and unavoidable and far-reaching in so many ways beyond just the issue of abortion -- prevent any of us, whether pro-life or against, from trying to improve the health of babies, and therefore of the adults they will someday become? Can't we all get along, at least where the health of the next generation is concerned?

Why let our differences over abortion prevent us from doing something all of us surely favor -- improving prenatal care, making deliveries safer and promoting the health of both mothers and their children? Whatever we disagree about, surely those things we can agree on.

Must every issue become an ideological flash point? This change in the way state aid is administered deserves unanimous support. Because, to quote the administration's Dennis Smith: "It is well established that access to prenatal care can improve health outcomes over a child's life.''

So why the fuss? Because the pro-choice camp fears it may lose some cheap debating points in the next legal tussle over abortion.

In terms of law, the decision to extend health coverage to the unborn would be only one more paradoxical legal technicality in a country that allows abortion on demand. Many states already prosecute crimes against the unborn, like assault, without being able to protect them from abortion. Law will keep producing such contradictions as long as Roe v. Wade stands; we've learned to live with them. Why should one more make any great difference?

Whether the unborn are offered health coverage is scarcely a decisive or probably even relevant factor in the debate, litigation and moral divide over abortion. It's just a change in the paperwork necessary to get better health care to those who need it.

The rate of infant mortality in this country -- it may be the highest in the developed world -- has been a continuing scandal for decades. And it is only one indicator of our failure to pay proper attention to the next generation.

There are doubtless many reasons for this neglect, beginning with poverty, ignorance and a general callousness toward life. By extending Medicaid coverage, we aren't likely to solve all the problems that beset the youngest and most vulnerable of Americans, but it would be a start.

So why not just do it? And put aside all the fancy ideological and linguistic footwork for just one sensible moment.

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