A Bush administration policy to extend health care and services into the womb in the form of prenatal care is being attacked by abortion rights groups as a backdoor effort to challenge legal abortions.

A policy currently being considered by the Bush administration's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would expand the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which benefits uninsured parents who don't qualify for Medicaid, to offer prenatal care and delivery services. In doing so, the policy would define a fetus as a "targeted low-income child."

And that's the rub.

Abortion rights groups have long been suspicious of any efforts to define unborn children as persons.  They are concerned that by defining a fetus as a "child," as the new HHS policy would, pro-life advocates might be better able to argue that fetuses are entitled to full Constitutional protections under the law that would supersede a woman's right to abortion. 

According to a draft letter now being reviewed by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, the federal government would not designate new funds for the $4 billion CHIP budget, but would give flexibility to the states to serve pregnant women and provide continuity of care once the child is born.

"The goal is to increase access for pregnant women to prenatal healthcare," said HHS spokesman Bill Pierce, who emphasized that the policy was a mere draft letter and far from being fully deliberated.

States today can extend CHIP benefits to pregnant mothers over the age of 18, but must ask special permission from the federal government to do so.

Abortion Defenders See Stealth Campaign at Work

But abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood said Friday morning that they are wary of the administration's move.  They criticize the proposed policy as little more than a "backdoor" effort by a pro-life administration to set a legal precedent that could one day be used to challenge legal abortions.

"I would definitely think they have an ulterior motive," said a national Planned Parenthood spokesman. "It's kind of like the same old backdoor. If your going to do prenatal care — which we're all for — then do prenatal care. But when you start attaching personhood, well stop right there."

Planned Parenthood representatives argue that the administration could extend coverage without also deeming the unborn child a person.

"We're not opposing the fund, we are opposing the way the funds are being used," said the spokesman. "They need to reword [the policy]."

No Ulterior Motive, Administration Says

But Heather Cirmo, a spokesman for the pro-life Family Research Council, balked at the reaction by the abortion rights lobby.

"It shows that they are not primarily concerned with women who are low-income women experiencing a pregnancy, they are most concerned with their agenda and advancing that agenda," said Cirmo.

Families eligible for the CHIP program, which was established in 1997, earn as little as $17,650 annually.

"Our initial reaction is that unborn children should be taken care of and it's a good way for the federal government to extend dollars to the coverage of children who deserve to be protected," Cirmo said.

The Bush administration denied any ulterior motive. "I told you what our goal is, and what the Secretary's goal is: increasing access to prenatal care for pregnant women," Pierce said.  "That's [Secretary Thompson's] motivation."