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COLUMN LEFT/ JONATHAN FREEDMAN

Wilson's New Witch Hunt: Prenatal Aliens : Denying health care to pregnant illegal immigrants is barbaric and fiscally foolish.

January 30, 1994|JONATHAN FREEDMAN | Jonathan Freedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist in San Diego and the author of "From Cradle to Grave: the Human Face of Poverty in America" (Atheneum, 1993).

Gov. Pete Wilson wants to halt state-funded prenatal care for undocumented immigrants. The rationale is that California can no longer afford to provide Medi-Cal to all low-income citizens, let alone illegal aliens.

The unstated argument runs something like this: California is overwhelmed by immigrants who cross the border illegally, take low-paying jobs from Americans and have too many babies at taxpayers' expense. The governor can't change federal immigration law, although Wilson advocates that undocumented immigrants' American-born babies no longer be granted automatic citizenship. But, he reasons, California can make itself inhospitable by refusing medical care to undocumented mothers-to-be. (Scapegoating illegals also feeds a nativist backlash and enables an unpopular governor to distract voters from California's real problems.)

Denying prenatal care to illegal immigrants will only add to the state's financial woes. Wilson hopes to save $92 million from the 1994 budget by this cut. Yet it eventually will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in hospital bills, long-term care, remedial education and lifetime support to raise impaired children.

It's disturbing that Wilson, who came into office committed to a healthy start for all children, has abandoned this goal just as progress was being made in reducing infant mortality in Los Angeles and San Diego.

There are very few things a governor can do that uphold the ultimate value of each individual human life and also save tax money. Prenatal care costs about $10 a day, compared with $2,000 a day to hospitalize a sick, premature baby. Prenatal care sharply reduces the chances of babies being born too small to survive on their own. Low-birth-weight babies are 40 times more likely than normal-weight babies to die before their first birthday.

The objection to Wilson's proposal is not only economic; it is moral. How a society treats babies is a reflection of a civilization's deepest values. Preventive checkups and nutrition are the best ways to offer a new generation a healthy start in life. Prenatal care is an absolute good.

Withholding checkups, vaccinations and nutrition from undocumented mothers is bad health policy. Once a pregnancy has begun, in the normal course of things a baby will be born. The question is whether the mother and child will receive low-cost prenatal care or come into the delivery room without ever having seen a doctor or nurse practitioner.

The problem with poor immigrants is not that they overuse prenatal care, but that so many never go to a doctor until it's an emergency. Instead of barring the undocumented from health care, we should be reaching out to persuade them to utilize preventive health services for their benefit--and for the taxpayers' protection.

Wilson's proposal undercuts the principle of equality that underlies a pluralistic democracy. To deny prenatal care to individuals based on their parents' immigration status is to expose an entire class of children, prenatal aliens, to a high risk of physical and mental disability. In a society that equates healthy bodies and minds with high status, it adds to the stigma of illegality a life-long curse of perceived inferiority.

As immigration policy, withholding prenatal care to undocumented mothers is perverse. It threatens to punish the American-born child for the acts of the immigrant parent. Low-birth-weight babies start life in torture--limbs stabbed with needles, throats cut to insert breathing tubes, eyes blindfolded to protect from bright lights, bodies confined in Isolettes, deprived of human touch. And this torture goes on in silence: Low-birth-weight babies can't scream because they're hooked up to breathing tubes.

If we're going to use brain-damaged, blind, deaf and crippled babies to deter illegal immigration, let's stick their tiny bodies on posts at the border as a warning to expectant mothers. Deploy the Border Patrol at Medi-Cal clinics. Arrest doctors who give checkups that prevent birth defects. Hunt down pregnant women in the barrios and ship them to Tijuana. Then, at least, Gov. Wilson would be honest about what Californians are willing to do to the most vulnerable strangers in our midst.

Human sacrifice will neither balance the budget nor seal the border; Wilson's proposal is a barbaric reflection of what we have become.

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