Devotees of Jewish folklore are familiar with the legendary town of Chelm, whose inhabitants were compulsively driven to commit acts that would have the opposite effect of what was originally desired. If the children of the town didn't have enough milk, the Chelm elders would make sure that town revenues were spent on a billy goat; if a new roof was needed for the prayer hall, a brilliant rationale would be found for constructing a new floor and so on. Nowhere are the Chelm-like qualities of the Reagan administration more evident than in its policies on family planning and abortion.
New rules have been proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services that would forbid family-planning clinics that receive federal funds from even mentioning the option of an abortion to patients. (Under current policy, federally funded clinics do not perform abortions, but they must provide counseling on all options, including abortion, if a pregnant woman requests such information.) Should these new rules go into effect, family-planning clinics across the country will find their funding cut, since the health professionals who staff them will be ethically unable to comply with such a restrictive policy.
When these clinics are forced to close, there will result thousands of unwanted pregnancies, and many of these probably will be terminated by abortions. Hence, a move designed to placate the right-to-life supporters of the president will have the ultimate effect of causing more abortions. The people of Chelm would feel at home with such a policy.
These new rules also raise troubling questions about what happens to public policy when it is driven by ideological fanaticism. It is true that there is genuine disagreement in this country about the morality and desirability of abortion. But it is also true that a woman's right to choose an abortion is the law of the land. It is a measure of how debased public policy has become when health professionals are forbidden, in response to a patient's question, to say the name of a legitimate medical procedure.
There is a further irony in the administration's heavy-handed crackdown on abortion counseling within family-planning clinics. The anti-abortion movement has long sought to portray abortion counseling as synonymous with an uncritical promotion of abortion. The reality, however, is quite different.
The cardinal principle of abortion counseling, a field that has developed ever since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, is that no woman should get an abortion until she has fully explored her feelings on this subject. The role of the abortion counselor is decidedly not to make a decision for the woman, but to facilitate the decision-making process. The promise of abortion counseling is that it allows an opportunity to make an often difficult decision in the most thoughtful and informed manner possible.
By banning the possibility of this kind of discussion in clinics, anti-abortion zealots are not going to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country. They will succeed, however, in reducing the number of places in this society where those with unwanted pregnancies can reflect seriously on the advantages and disadvantages of an abortion.
In narrow political terms, the proposal of such foolish (and, most likely, unconstitutional) rules by this administration is quite understandable: a lame-duck president is seeking to accomplish by fiat changes that Congress and the public have resisted. Yet the sheer irrationality of these regulations makes this a particularly shameful exercise of presidential power.
The writer is a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College.