(RNS) The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services plans toallow states to provide health insurance for fetuses, a proposal cheeredby anti-abortion groups and condemned by organizations supportingabortion rights.

Current regulations define "child" in the State Children's HealthInsurance Program as those younger than 19. The new rule would includecoverage for children "from conception to age 19," a statement from thedepartment said.

"Prenatal care for women and their babies is a crucial part of themedical care every person should have through the course of their lifecycle," said HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson on Thursday.

The proposal, which will be published in the Federal Register forfurther consideration, could allow states to make funding available tolow-income pregnant women as soon as the spring, Thompson said.

The announcement prompted a range of reactions from groups on eitherside of the abortion issue.

The Rev. Carlton Veazey, president and CEO of the ReligiousCoalition for Reproductive Choice, said the Bush administration wouldmake "a serious error" if the proposal is enacted because it would be astep "toward establishing the fetus as a legal person and fostering atroubling maternal-fetal conflict."

Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, a reproductive freedom group,called the move by the Bush administration "the latest ploy in itsongoing stealth campaign to have government make abortions illegal."

Cathleen Cleaver, a spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Bishops'Pro-Life Secretariat, said abortion rights groups are "seriouslymisguided" if they oppose the proposal.

"Denying low-income women access to state-insured prenatal care inthe name of abortion is senseless," she said.

Michael Schwartz, vice president of government relations forConcerned Women for America, a conservative organization, said: "CommonSense tells us that children's health begins with good prenatal care. Aswe recognize the humanity of unborn children whose mothers intend togive birth, that inevitably raises the question: How could we allowthese same children to be killed by abortionists?"