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National NOW Times >> Fall, 2001 >> Article

"Fetal Rights" Initiatives Concern Abortion Rights Supporters

by Rebecca Farmer, Press Secretary

Opponents of abortion rights have employed numerous tactics in their attempts to dismantle Roe v. Wade, the newest of which might loosely be dubbed a Fetal Rights strategy. The hottest issues in this genre include the debate surrounding stem cell research, a White House proposal to provide health coverage for fetuses (but not their mothers) and the so-called Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

Stem Cell Research

Not wishing to alienate his extremist anti-reproductive rights support base, George W. Bush announced very limited support for embryonic stem-cell research by saying that federal funds could be used only for some 60 existing stem cell lines. Many experts doubt that this is a scientifically viable approach and the policy has come under severe criticism from the scientific, medical and patients’ advocacy communities. In what some see as a cleverly staged advance damage control effort by Republicans, Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) and a few other key anti-abortion political leaders previously had announced their support of embryonic stem-cell research. Some have dubbed Frist and his allies, including Senators Strom Thurmond (R-NC) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), “pro-life with an asterisk.” These Senators clearly demonstrate that when it is in men’s interest to promote certain reproductive health policies but continue to deny others to women, they will do so without hesitation.

“Stem cell research has the real potential to ease or even abate the consequences of so many diseases,” said (Washington) DC NOW activist Tara Edwards, who has watched a number of family members suffer from diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, for which this research might provide life-preserving treatments. “Whether your own political beliefs are pro-choice or pro-life, the real issue here is increasing the quality of life for thousands of people who are alive and with us today. There should be no debate on this issue.”

Health Insurance for Fetuses – At What Cost?

In early July, the Bush Administration pro-posed to allow states to define a fetus as a person under the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – ostensibly to permit coverage of needed prenatal and delivery services. NOW President Kim Gandy immediately blasted the proposed policy as part of an underhanded attack on abortion rights – an effort to prohibit abortion by first establishing personhood for a fertilized egg. “This is a transparent ploy to undermine reproductive rights by granting ‘personhood’ to embryos and fetuses,” Gandy said. “If George W. wanted to allow states to cover pregnant women under this program, he’d simply grant a waiver to every state that requested one.”

Not surprisingly, this focus on the fetus came shortly after Bush’s proposed budget sought to cut the Maternal and Child Health Block Grants that provide health care to women before, during and after pregnancy, and to freeze the Healthy Start program, which has been shown to reduce infant mortality and morbidity. Gandy suggested that the White House and Bush supporters in Congress mandate health coverage of low-income pregnant women, and stop playing games with women’s reproductive rights.

Unborn Victims of Violence

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the so-called Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), which would create a separate penalty for anyone convicted of harming a fetus during commission of a federal crime. UVVA would give separate legal status to any fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, even if the woman is unaware that she is pregnant. Feminists argue that the House’s passage of UVVA was not meant to protect women, that instead it was meant to lay the groundwork for dismantling Roe v. Wade by giving the fetus rights separate from the mother. “This bill is being sold as an effort to deter violence against women, but it ignores the pregnant woman,” Gandy said. “It is nothing more than a poorly disguised attempt to elevate fetal rights.”

Abortion rights supporters charge that the sponsors of the UVVA purposely crafted legislation to redefine the legal status of a fertilized egg as a human being and aimed at challenging a woman’s right to abortion. The conservative majority in the House even rejected a compromise which would have increased the penalty for injuring a pregnant woman, but without conferring personhood on a fetus. The bill will next move to a more evenly-divided Senate, where the vote is expected to be close. If the UVVA passes the Senate, President Bush is expected to sign it into law. In a related development, the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, which cleared the House by 380-15 last Congress, was passed out of committee, while an identical version of the bill was incorporated by the Senate in Patients’ Bill of Rights legislation.

Oppose the Attacks on Women’s Rights

“All of these machinations have a political goal that is important to George W. Bush – limiting birth control and abortion,” Gandy said. “Endowing a fetus with more rights than a pregnant woman is more than a back door attempt to restrict abortion rights. It’s also a slap in the face to women everywhere.” As the 2002 elections approach, activists will have the opportunity to support candidates who will uphold women’s rights and to replace incumbents who don’t.

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