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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, a reproductive freedom group, called the move by the Bush administration "the latest ploy in its ongoing 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 "seriously misguided" if they oppose the proposal.

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

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

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