Experts Say New 'Unborn Child' Classification Means Little

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - The Bush administration says it wants to make it easier for poor women to get government-funded pre-natal care. And a new proposal by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to allow states to reclassify a fetus as an unborn child, fulfills that mission, according to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Pro-life groups are cheering, but abortion rights advocates are jeering.

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, says the HHS plan is really a "stealth campaign to have government make abortions illegal."

Such is the current political debate over abortion, with both sides vying for any slight advantage they can gain and worried about any ruling that could create a "slippery slope."

The HHS proposal "is hardly getting rid of Roe v. Wade, and for the pro-life movement, the victory is only symbolic," Prof. Gregg Bloche, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said. "So one side is proclaiming a great victory they haven't quite won, and the other is hanging black crepe that doesn't need to be hung.

"I think both claims are way overstretched," he said.

Bloche said this is more a case of the administration trying to secure votes for the next election, by appeasing its pro-life constituency.

"I think it is a little niggled, it is part of a broader strategy of satisfying social conservatives with rhetoric without having to pay much of a political cost to do it," Bloche said.

Tom Miller, director of Health Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, agreed, saying the new rule is nothing but "political posturing."

"These are things on the margin, but it gets everyone all worked up," Miller said. He called it symbolic rather than core politics, "but I think that is what people at that end of the debate like to do."

Prof. James Mohr, a law professor at the University of Oregon, speculated that any reclassification of a fetus could end up being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, which has never recognized a fetus as being eligible for rights.

But according to Mohr, "pro-life groups can count this as a victory, as far as the law goes, and it looks like we are potentially leaning in that direction."

Mohr does questions the Bush administration's real aim.

"It seems to me that if the administration was interested in pre-natal care, they could achieve the same goal by offering that pre-natal care to pregnant women, without having to 'imperson' the unborn.

Prof. Frances Olsen, law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the Bush administration may have proposed the rule under the guise of "health care," but its implications are more closely tied to the abortion debate than to the future of health care.

"It is in countries where reproductive choices are left un-intruded upon by government, that the infant mortality rate is lower, conditions are better. It is an inherently contradictory position," Olsen said. "If they want to help pregnant women, there are other ways.

"Virtually every other developed country in the world provides pre-natal assistance, and they do it without trying to enter into this kind of debate," she said.

Judie Brown, president of the pro-life American Life League, said that while many pro-lifers may chalk up the decision as a victory, they have little, if anything to celebrate.

"Pro-lifers, eager for anything that can be construed as a positive sign, have once again been mesmerized by the schizophrenic Bush administration," Brown said. "The recent Health and Human Services announcement on federal funding for pre-natal care should not be considered a major pro-life victory."

Miller compared the abortion debate to a chess game. "If someone captured a pawn, it is well short of checkmate."

See Earlier Story:

Bush Administration Classifies Fetus as 'Unborn Child'

E-mail a news tip to Jason Pierce.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.