WASHINGTON— An unborn child is a human being.

It sounds commonplace to Catholics but when the federal government acknowledged it on Jan. 31, it sent tremors through the pro-life and pro-abortion movements.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services made the recognition as it announced plans to recognize “fetuses” as unborn children so that low-income mothers can seek prenatal care for their babies.

The federally-funded state Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides funds for the health care of low-income children whose parents meet specific economic criteria. However, the wording of the program's bylaws does not ensure care for unborn children, as it defines children as those younger than 19.

But agency secretary Tommy Thompson's proposed new wording, published in The Federal Register for further consideration and public comment, would define eligible recipients of aid as those “from conception to age 19.”

That means even the youngest of unborn infants are eligible for assistance — and are implicitly recognized as human beings.

Abortionist Warren Hern's reaction might indicate how much of a breakthrough the agency's action really was.

Speaking by telephone from his bulletproof Colorado fortress, the Boulder Abortion Clinic (which advertises “specializing in late abortions”), Hern compared Thompson and the entire Bush administration to the Taliban.

“The American public needs to wake up and see what kind of right-wing fundamentalist regime they have put into office,” Hern told the Boulder Weekly, claiming that restricting a woman's right to have an abortion goes hand-in-hand with totalitarian behaviors. “It illustrates the fact that the Bush regime has a lot in common with the Taliban when it comes to women's rights.”

Two weeks earlier, Hern also compared Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a pro-life Catholic, to the Taliban for his efforts to restrict state funding of Planned Parenthood's abortion facilities.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said he isn't surprised Hern is so upset.

“Dr. Warren Hern is one of the architects of this concept that an unborn child is something other than a human being,” said Johnson. “His book Abortion Practice uses triangles and other shapes to depict arms and legs and other body parts. It's the manual for how to dehumanize unborn children in the public mindset, all the way through the third trimester. So of course Dr. Hern would be upset that the Bush administration wants to recognize and insure unborn children as human beings.”

In unintentionally encouraging words for pro-lifers, Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, described the Health and Human Services proposal regarding CHIP as “the latest ploy in [the Bush administration's] ongoing stealth campaign to have government make abortions illegal.”

Only One Step

While pro-life leaders applaud the proposed definition change, most are quick to concede that it does not mean victory in their battle to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion-on-demand legal in all 50 states. But it could help in changing hearts and minds about the reality of abortion, National Right to Life's Johnson said.

“Those who are pro-abortion don't like this because they don't like the way it makes people think,” said Johnson. “The abortion industry is based upon and propagated upon a lie that that says unborn child are something other than human beings. So they don't want the government to recognize the rights of the unborn in any case.”

Ellen Brilliant, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, disagreed with Johnson's assertion that the Health and Human Services proposal is not a direct blow to Roe v. Wade.

Brilliant said Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, plans to file formal opposition with the HHS regarding the proposed definition change. “This is not about word choices,” Brilliant says. “It's about whether you provide prenatal care for a woman or whether you provide prenatal care for a fetus. It's about defining a fetus as a person, which can seriously undermine Roe v. Wade.”

Cathy Cleaver, spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops’ pro-life secretariat, said the opposition of abortion advocates to Thompson's proposal is “seriously misguided.”

“Denying low-income women access to state-insured prenatal care in the name of abortion is senseless,” Cleaver said.

Planned Parenthood may recognize that fighting against assistance for low-income women is a difficult battle. Brilliant said Planned Parenthood is not opposed to the concept of low-income women receiving prenatal care for children they don't intend to abort.

Other Precedents

Despite its symbolic value, the Health and Human Services proposal is not precedent-setting in terms of recognizing the unborn as humans with rights. Most courts and other major government entities in the United States have in recent years acknowledged the rights and “personhood” of unborn children, Johnson said.

In 2000, for example, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 417-0 in favor of a bill written to condemn the execution of any convicted murderer, in any state, who is pregnant.

“With that unanimous vote, members of Congress were saying that it's not just a ‘condition’ that a woman has when she is pregnant,” Johnson says. “If it were really just a condition, and it didn't involve a second human being with rights, why would they care? They were saying the execution of a pregnant woman would kill another human being who is innocent — one who has not been convicted of murder.”

Other examples of the government accepting unborn children as humans with rights abound, in criminal and civil law. In most states, unborn children can inherit estates. They can be the subjects of custody disputes. And in 24 states, a person suspected of murdering a pregnant woman can be charged with double homicide for the deaths of two separate victims.

“In government and law, it's really abortion that's the anomaly,” Johnson insisted. “Unborn children have so many of the same rights and protections as the rest of society, yet the Supreme Court has decided that a mother's reproductive rights are so important that they supercede all of that.”

Pro-lifers will carefully watch the Bush administration on the CHIPs issue. How vigorously the administration defends the status of the unborn will say a lot about what can be expected from the president.

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.