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California and the West

Ruling Delays Prenatal Care Ban Decision

June 12, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pete Wilson's tenure as governor may well close without implementation of one of his most dogged pursuits: the end of state-subsidized care for tens of thousands of pregnant illegal immigrants.

That is the prospect facing the lame-duck governor after a unanimous California Supreme Court ruling issued Wednesday that spurned Wilson's latest effort to ban impoverished undocumented women from receiving state-funded prenatal care.

The state's highest court refused to lift the order of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert H. O'Brien barring the governor's plan from taking effect until a trial can be held. The trial is scheduled Nov. 24.

"With elections just months away, the governor should end his campaign against poor pregnant women and their children and let his successor in office decide the policy," said Robert Newman, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty and co-counsel in the challenge.

But the governor--who leaves office Dec. 31--vowed to fight on and is pursuing an expedited trial.

"We believe we can win this case on the merits," said Ron Low, a Wilson spokesman.

The state Medi-Cal program paid $83.7 million in prenatal care for about 70,000 illegal immigrants during the most recent fiscal year, according to the governor's office.

The Supreme Court ruling caps a series of legal challenges to Wilson's contention that illegal immigrant women do not merit public aid for pregnancies, except for emergency treatment.

The governor says such assistance acts as a "magnet" for illicit immigration.

Critics argue that it is the lure of economic opportunity--not the availability of prenatal care and other public benefits--that attracts immigrants.

Many health professionals say that pregnancy aid ultimately saves taxpayer money by preventing the need for costly emergency care, while reducing birth defects and illnesses in newborns, who are U.S. citizens by birth and eligible for public aid. Prenatal care encompasses a broad regimen, including periodic checkups, dietary counseling and health screening.

The governor moved to end prenatal care for undocumented immigrants four years ago after California voters overwhelmingly adopted Proposition 187, a ballot measure to eliminate nonemergency medical care and other government services to those in the country illegally. But a federal court blocked implementation of most of the proposition.

Wilson then sought other means to restrict prenatal expenditures, turning to welfare "reform" provisions.

Congress in 1996 approved a sweeping revision of U.S. welfare law, incorporating many themes previously enunciated in Proposition 187. The law generally barred states from providing nonemergency aid to illegal immigrants. The governor again moved to end prenatal care for illegal immigrants, triggering a flurry of lawsuits.

Ironically, opponents found ammunition in another provision of the 1996 welfare law.

In drafting the law, Congress explicitly guaranteed that needy immigrants, regardless of status, would retain access to publicly financed immunizations and to subsidized diagnosis and treatment of communicable diseases. Lawmakers reasoned that barring such aid would endanger the public health.

Lawyers representing undocumented women filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court last year, arguing that treatment and diagnosis of communicable diseases in pregnant women, including AIDS and other sexually transmitted ailments, cannot be separated from prenatal care. In March, Judge O'Brien issued a preliminary injunction blocking Wilson's plan.

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