The Bush administration said Friday that it would enforce a nearly 3-year-old federal law that requires doctors to attempt to keep alive a fetus that survives an abortion (search ).

In making the announcement, the Department of Health and Human Services (search ) said it was an attempt to educate the public about the little-known law. Officials said they didn't know how often a fetus survives an abortion and would not say whether there have been any complaints about a lack of enforcement.

"As a matter of law and policy, the [department] will investigate all circumstances where individuals and entities are reported to be withholding medical care from an infant born alive in potential violation of federal statutes for which we are responsible," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt (search ) said in a statement.

"We will also take proactive steps to educate state officials, health care providers, hospitals and child protection agencies about their obligation to born-alive infants under federal law," Leavitt said.

The Born-Alive Infant Protection Act of 2002 (search ) amends the legal definitions of "person," "human being," "child" and "individual" to include any fetus that survives an abortion procedure.

Those who meet the definition of "individual" are entitled to certain protections under federal law. In particular, hospitals can't refuse to treat them.

HHS spokesman Kevin Keane said the department's action was not politically motivated. He said Leavitt had been asked about the issue at his confirmation hearing.

The National Right to Life Committee welcomed the department's move.

"The 2002 law and today's actions by the agency were both badly needed, because there are those in our society who have convinced themselves that some newborn infants — particularly those born alive during abortions, or with handicaps — are not really legal persons," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the group.

A spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America said the group had no comment and that it did not oppose the 2002 legislation because it did not impede on a woman's right to have an abortion.