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  New blow to women's rights behind the mantle of social concern
By Linda Watson-Brown
20/07/01

As PRESIDENT Bush glories in the messages of congratulation - from some - which will follow his Son of Star Wars activities, he may give himself a pat on the back for additional political shenanigans. While the Bush administration may be presenting its deep desire to reignite the Cold War and ignore global environmental concerns as main priorities, the backdoor of the White House must be ready to fly off its hinges with the slippery manoeuvring in another sphere. In a further attempt to sneak in additional anti-choice legislation while no-one is watching, policy has been drafted which will give states the option of recognising a foetus as a person.

Apart from writing about soap operas, there is little I can address in these columns which will generate as much heated debate as abortion. A few weeks ago, the issue arose once again. When a woman decides on an abortion, do we refer to the product of that terminated pregnancy as a baby, a person, a foetus, an embryo, or a collection of cells? For some, these are mere semantics - for others, they represent the absolute kernel of the dilemma.

But now, from the office of the president, comes another blow to women's rights. This time, it may be more dangerous, for it hides behind the mantle of social concern. Under this policy, the "unborn child" of an uninsured woman who does not qualify for Medicaid would be eligible for medical coverage under the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). SCHIP is a federally funded programme which gives grants to states to provide health insurance coverage to uninsured children of up to 200 per cent of the federal poverty level. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, headed by anti-choice secretary Tommy Thompson, the purpose of this policy is to increase access to prenatal care for pregnant women.

Well, wouldn't that be grand? Unfortunately, it is not exactly what is being proposed. While access to prenatal services and comprehensive health care provision is a laudable ideal, this is not what will be achieved if this policy becomes enshrined in law. This Bush initiative is nothing more than a sham to undermine women and limit their reproductive options. Many states, such as New Jersey and Rhode Island, already provide SCHIP coverage to women under a Clinton initiative, and they do it without granting legal rights to the foetus.

If, or when, these rights are set, the resulting implications will be enormous. Abortion could be categorised as murder of the unborn child, with already fearful physicians and healthcare providers facing court proceedings and possible incarceration.

In the same week that Bush gave his support to this initiative, his administration rejected a call to extend contraceptive coverage for new mothers receiving Medicaid. The current provision allows recipients to access birth control for only two months following delivery. Under the new request, this would be extended to two years with considerable health and social benefits. It was not deemed to be appropriate or necessary.

The Bush government has also, thus far, continued in its belief that the best response to research indicating extensive levels of ignorance about sexually transmitted infections is to promote abstinence. Despite the emergence of figures last week which show that 30 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women in America claim to have had a partner try to dissuade them from condom use, the official response is that, again, it would not be appropriate to engage in further sex education campaigns.

This emphasis on the 'inappropriateness' of basic health promotion and harm reduction measures goes beyond any knee-jerk Republican fear of galloping promiscuity or widespread social breakdown. I believe it can be seen as no less than a deep-rooted desire to threaten, challenge and remove women's autonomy in the sphere of reproductive options. It has little to do with ensuring that children born into poverty are given a basic safety net, nor does it intend to replace ignorance with respect and understanding. This administration is already showing signs that in a couple of years the US may very well have lots of shiny new missiles with which to impress hardware-happy enthusiasts, but it will also have a whole generation of young women without hope, freedom or rights.

 
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