PRESIDENT REAGAN would like to see a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Fortunately, he's not likely to get his wish, but last week he offered some alternatives to right-to-life groups who visited him at the White House. He reiterated the tough stance this country has taken on the question of discouraging abortion in developing countries and -- this was easy -- he pledged support for legislation that would prohibit the District of Columbia from using its own money to pay for Medicaid abortions. Then he announced that he would propose, within the next 60 days, revised regulations for the program authorized by Title X of the Public Health Service Act. It is the only federal program specifically designed to provide funds for family-planning services.
Congress has since 1970 prohibited the use of Title X funds for abortion or for lobbying for abortion. Numerous GAO audits have established that this law is being observed. The legislative history of this law, however, reflects congressional intent not to interfere with privately funded activities, including abortion services, so long as no federal money is used. Three changes in the regulations have been announced by the president, and while they may appear minor, they are not. First, family-planning counselors would no longer be required to present a complete set of options to a client but could omit any mention of abortion as an alternative. Doctors have questioned the ethical implications of withholding such information, particularly in cases where a pregnant woman has AIDS or diabetes or other medical conditions where it might not be advisable to continue the pregnancy. Referrals to abortion service providers would also be barred.
Next, the president says that if an organization such as Planned Parenthood provides family-planning services with federal funds and abortion services with private funds, these activities must take place at separate sites. Most already do. Of the 4,500 Title X clinics around the country, only 87 (1.9 percent) are located on the same premises as abortion facilities. Forty-three of these are hospitals. This unnecessary change in the regulations not only would cause great hardship to providers, most of whom serve the poor, but would cause them great expense as well. As long as the facilities are separate and the funds are not intermingled, why is this change needed? It smacks of simple harassment.
Finally, the new regulations would forbid the use of federal funds for "any program that encourages, promotes or advocates abortion." Here we have First Amendment problems that are not new. Courts have already struck down state laws seeking to restrict speech of this kind or to condition the receipt of government funds on a recipient's agreement not to exercise a constitutional right.
Last week's announcement cheered abortion opponents, but it is not the final word. When the regulations are published they will be studied, challenged and perhaps revised. Congress can and should act to block the implementation of those that are at odds with 17 years of legislative history. And the courts eventually will decide whether they reflect the intent and the express language of the statute, and whether they meet constitutional standards. We are confident that the proposed revisions will not meet these tests