In Jordan once, I discovered I lacked the proper papers to cross the Allenby Bridge to Israel. People were waiting for me in Jerusalem, so I picked up the hotel phone to call them. The operator told me it was forbidden to call Israel. I tried to send a telex. That, too, was forbidden. I tried to book a flight to Athens and then to Israel. I could be booked to Athens, I was told by a travel agent, but not on to Israel. It was -- you guessed it -- forbidden.
That sort of Kafkaesque lunacy, heightened by the fact that with a short drive I could literally throw a stone into Israel, seems terribly Middle Eastern -- the sort of thing that could not happen here. But in spirit and intent that is what President Reagan has in mind for some 4,500 family planning centers that get federal funds. They would be forbidden from mentioning abortion.
As it is now, these clinics are not permitted to perform or recommend abortions. They can, however, mention it as a legal and available birth control option. It is that counseling that the president wants to outlaw, and to the cheers of anti-abortion activists, he says he will do so. In a recent speech, Reagan said he intends to have regulations drafted that would forbid the clinics from talking about abortion. Clinics that violate the ban would lose their federal funding.
There are several problems with the president's suggestion -- one of them being the First Amendment. Family planning counselors, who sometimes are physicians, have a basic constitutional right, as well as medical obligation, to counsel their patients. Abortion is legal and available, and a doctor has a duty, especially in some cases, to mention it as an option. Given that 4 million women visit such clinics each year and that one-third of them are teen-agers, withholding such information can have catastrophic results -- such as dangerous abortions late in pregnancy.
The other problem with the president's modest proposal is that Congress intended no such thing. In fact, when it passed Title X of the Public Health Service Act, it required clinics to discuss abortion as an option and to make referrals to private abortion agencies, if necessary. The reason for this provision ought to be plain: not mentioning abortion amounts to withholding information that the patient is entitled to, possibly depriving her of an option that the Supreme Court says is a constitutional right.
The problem with the president's new order is the problem with abortion itself: it is an arbitrary response to a complicated problem. I've had anti-abortion politicians either look away or murmur a weak assent to abortion when I've asked them two questions: What would you do if your wife was told she would give birth to a severely deformed and maybe doomed baby? What would you do if your daughter became pregnant as a result of rape? Their often ice-cold opposition to abortion melts under the glare of specificity. They oppose abortion in principle, but they have no idea what to do with specific cases.
Similarly, many so-called pro-choice people are bothered by the casualness with which some women have abortions. They do not like pregnancies terminated in a routine fashion, to be used as a substitute for birth control, and they are disturbed -- as they should be -- by the moral implications of ending life for reasons of personal convenience. This century teaches some stark lessons about what happens when societies trivialize life.
Just as most anti- or pro-abortion people recognize that their position incorporates some contradictions, so too should the Reagan administration. At a minimum, opponents want the government silent on the subject. That's understandable. If I were an abortion opponent, if I considered it murder, I would not want my tax dollars used for such counseling or, worse, for abortion itself.
But Reagan's order breezes right by all the contradictions. It does not pause for the First Amendment or the law, and it slows not at all to consider a doctor's professional obligation to a patient. It is inhospitable to compromise and accommodation, both of which can be found in the present law: abortion with federal funds is not permitted; counseling is.
Like an abortion opponent who has no appetite to ponder the hard cases or an abortion proponent who would rather not think in terms of morality, the president has struck a rhetorical pose in which words, somehow, are supposed to alter reality. Jordan's petty efforts not to accommodate itself to the reality of Israel has given the Middle East a reputation for lunacy. When it comes to abortion, the Reagan administration seems intent on earning one of its own.