Last Thursday, January 31, the Bush administration issued a proposed regulation that would give legal rights to an unborn fetus.

According to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who made the announcement, the proposal is part of an effort on the part of the Bush administration to increase prenatal care for women and babies. "Prenatal care for women and their babies is a crucial part of the medical care every person should have through the course of their life cycle," Thompson said.

But critics say this is a veiled way of lending support to the anti-abortion cause. By making the legal distinction between the rights of the fetus and those of a mother, say critics, Bush is laying the groundwork to make abortion illegal.

"Our position is that if President Bush wanted to provide prenatal care, he could have extended insurance coverage for pregnant women. Instead, he gave coverage to a fetus rather than a pregnant woman," said Linda Kirkland, Director of Community Services for Planned Parenthood of the Columbia-Willamette. "We believe that is very dangerous, because he is taking the first step to criminalize abortion."

Moreover, critics also note that Bush's proposal will make little to no actual change in the rights of pregnant women. In Oregon, for example, low-income, pregnant women are already allotted health care under the Oregon Health Plan. In contrast, according to Thompson, Bush's proposal simply "clarifies the definition of 'child'" under the state Children's Health Insurance Program.

Since 10.9 million American women between the ages of 18-44 do not have health insurance, increasing prenatal care for women is already a primary goal of Planned Parenthood and other women's healthcare advocacy groups. "We work all year long with Congress to try and get coverage for pregnant women," said Kirkland. "We wish that if the Bush Administration was really concerned about that, they would make an effort to make a change that had some concrete effects."

Not surprisingly, the announcement has garnered support from Oregon's anti-abortion critics. Oregon Right to Life--an unlikely supporter of socialized medicine and prenatal health care--has applauded the announcement. "We're very pleased that he has encouraged good prenatal care for unborn children and for women," said Gayle Atteberry, Executive Director of Oregon Right to Life. Atteberry also insists that prenatal care is not an unusual political sphere for Oregon Right to Life. "We have always cared immensely for the unborn child," she explained. "That's why we oppose the killing of the unborn child."

Atteberry agreed that distinguishing between the legal rights of the fetus and of the mother has no repercussions at this point. "That's why we believe the opponents of this change are making a mountain out of a molehill," she explained.

Thompson's announcement came weeks after the anniversary of the landmark case, Roe v. Wade. In recent years, the legal strength of that decision has been brought into question. Anti-abortion advocates have, increasingly, pushed for a legal interpretation saying that as an embryo forms, the state's rights to the fetus increase. Providing unborn fetuses with legal privileges would further strengthen the state's interest in "protecting" the unborn fetus.

"In his State of the Union Address, President Bush declared respect for women to be non-negotiable," said Gloria Feldt, President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a press release Friday. "How hypocritical then, is his administration's announcement today, that effectively relegates women to second-class status? By proposing to 'clarify' the definition of 'child' to include the period from conception to age 19 years, the administration is elevating the status of the fetus above that of a woman." [A rally to protest Justice Antonin Scalia's visit to Portland will be held on Saturday at Lewis & Clark College at 2:30 pm.]