As I See It:

"We are eating our seed corn."

— Marian Wright Edelman, Children's Defense Fund

What a lot of love U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and 239 of his colleagues heaped on pre-babies last week. They so adore one-day-might-be children that they passed an amendment to the House health care bill that deals a harsh blow to reproductive rights. They wanted to make sure that a woman can't easily purchase private insurance that covers abortions in a proposed insurance exchange, even with her own money.

Given their passion over fetuses, you'd think that those 240 House members would be able to whip up some enthusiasm for actual children — squalling babes-in-arms, squirming toddlers, restless junior high schoolers — who could lose their health insurance under the House version of health care reform. But try as she might, Marian Wright Edelman — head of a Washington-based children's advocacy group, the Children's Defense Fund — hasn't been able to muster much concern over the proposed demise of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

CHIP — which, since 1997, has fueled creation of enormously popular and successful low-cost health insurance programs for kids in all 50 states — is expected to provide health insurance for 14 million children by 2013. The plans cover children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but who cannot afford private insurance plans. Under the House health care bill, however, the program would expire in 2013, when the bill's provisions would set up insurance exchanges.

Working-class parents would be expected to purchase insurance for themselves and their families through the exchanges. But problems abound with that approach. First off, it would interrupt the insurance that many children already have as parents are forced to cope with a different bureaucracy to find new insurance plans. Second, the exchanges might easily be more expensive. Yes, many families would be eligible for subsidies, but there is no guarantee the policies for their children would be as affordable — or as comprehensive — as they are under the CHIP programs.

"Those exchanges are untested," Edelman pointed out. "Why would you want to make children worse off in health care reform?

Edelman is exasperated at the attention that has been lavished on senior citizens — "My grandchildren are more important than me," she said — and annoyed by the energy diverted by inconsequential or made-up issues, like the fraudulent death panels. She expected the debate over health care reform to allow children's advocates to build on the success of CHIP.

She thought she'd be lobbying for a less formidable bureaucracy, so that parents could enroll their children more easily. Some states, like Georgia, use a daunting system of rules and regulations to keep children off the rolls, just as private insurers use so-called "rescission" to drop consumers after they get sick. (Like Medicaid, CHIP is a program whose costs are shared by the states and the federal government.) But instead of leading the charge for a simplified system, Edelman is fighting just to keep it alive.

In some ways, the program is a victim of its success. After President George W. Bush twice vetoed expansions of CHIP, Democrats promised to pour money into the program. In February, a Democratically controlled Congress set aside funds to keep the program alive through 2013.

With that, members of Congress patted themselves on the back and went off to satisfy other constituencies — Like the elderly, who already have Medicare. They have been coddled throughout the health care debate, as both Democrats and Republicans rushed to pander to them. You'd think that, instead, Congress would want to make sure children are healthy enough to become working adults who can support an aging population.

Now that the House has declared its unyielding support for the fetus, perhaps Congress can be persuaded to lavish a little more attention on children already born. They shouldn't be given short shrift just because they had the audacity to leave the womb.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.