Inconceivable cynicism

February 07, 2002

By: Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe at A19, February 7, 2002

HATE to start the morning off with cynicism. It's so corrosive to the human spirit.

Yes, the Bush administration's proposal to extend health insurance coverage to embryos looks like a political ploy to keep the antiabortion wing of the Republican Party happy.

Yes, some believe the White House decision that life as a patient begins at conception is not really about helping poor pregnant women get much-needed health care. It's about helping prolifers get a foot in the courthouse door.

And, yes, Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, did announce the first federal rule that would define a zygote as a person at a meeting of cheering prolifers attending the Conservative Political Action Conference.

But Thompson is an honorable man, and he insists, ''This is not an abortion debate.'' He swears that he's merely helping states expand coverage to poor pregnant women. Moreover, he has righteously proclaimed, ''How anybody can now turn this into a prochoice or prolife argument, I can't understand.''

Anybody? Moi?

So, let us put cynicism aside. Let us also put aside the fact that the Bush folks could give thousands of low-income pregnant women health care under any one of several bills before Congress - none of which redefine the fetus as child. Let us even put aside the fact that the administration's new budget hasn't added a nickel to the Maternal and Child Health grants.

Let's take the honorable Secretary Thompson seriously. His proposal would let the states extend health coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program by redefining children to include even the fertilized egg. It's not the pregnant women who would qualify but the ''unborn child.''

The regulations themselves have yet to be published, but under these terms, this new population of low-income women is entitled to see a doctor only because and while their wombs are being occupied. More to the point, the fetus is the patient.

As Rachel Roth, a political scientist at Washington University, says: ''They talk about enrolling fetuses in this program. Women are just the transport vehicle to deliver the fetus for the doctor's appointment.''

She says that the plan ''brings to mind an image of the fetus going to the doctor, filling out the forms, and sitting in the waiting room by itself. ''

Ah, gotcha, creeping cynicism. But what happens when, in essence, this new category of women aren't eligible for health care in their own right but in the name of their unnamed fetus? Would the government pay for a miscarriage? An ectopic pregnancy? A stillbirth? Nobody knows.

It's not that hard to imagine a pregnant woman who has a medical condition that is not embryo-related. Would the government pay if she had, say, a broken arm? And what if a doctor - paid to care for the fetus - wants to perform fetal surgery but the pregnant woman doesn't agree with his diagnosis? Whose doctor is he? ''This makes the woman invisible and erases her health needs,'' says Roth.

And while we are in deep imagination, wouldn't every fertilized egg in every petri dish or fertility clinic freezer be entitled to health care?

This it not the only attempt to treat the fetus separately and establish its own rights. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which passed the House but not the Senate last year, would create a new class of federal crimes. It would deal with an assault on a fetus alone, as if the assailant hadn't even touched the woman.

Again, there are many ways to punish criminals for the additional horror of assault without creating personhood rights for every embryo and fetus. But if someone can be convicted of murdering a newly classified ''unborn child,'' how long before a woman can be so accused?

Excuse me. I forgot, Tommy Thompson says this is not about abortion. And only a cynic would suggest that the ultimate goal of the administration is to declare the fetus a person for the stated purpose of overturning the abortion rights.

Representative Barney Frank likes to say that antiabortion advocates care about life from the moment of conception to the moment of birth. In this case, Lynn Paltrow, the head of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, points out, ''They're willing to change the law to protect unborn fetuses but not expand the program to cover all women of reproductive age who need it.''

Maybe we would have more success if we tried to extend coverage from the ''unborn'' to the ''unconceived.''

I would recommend that, but I'm afraid that someone might think I'm becoming cynical.