ABOUT 6,000 women and teenagers seek advice and help every year at Planned Parenthood's clinic in the South Bronx. Some want information about postponing and spacing the birth of their children. Others seek prenatal care. And many, particularly the teenagers, come only when they are already pregnant and not sure about what they want to do. Because Planned Parenthood, like states, cities and a number of other private organizations, receives money from the federal government through Title X of the Public Health Service Act, it cannot provide abortions in its family planning clinics. But until 1988, counselors could explain to young women that abortion is an option and could refer them to clinics where this is provided. In the last year of the Reagan administration, however, federal regulations that barred any mention of abortion were promulgated. The regulations also require any Title X organization using its own money for abortion services to provide physically separate facilities for that purpose.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether these regulations are constitutional. They are clearly uncalled for, unwise and perhaps even unethical from the point of view of physicians' giving incomplete medical counsel. But the question before the court is limited to the possible conflict between the regulations and constitutionally guaranteed rights of speech. A federal appellate court in New York upheld the regulations. Another, in Massachusetts, struck them down. The Justice Department, which has argued in defense of the regulations, asked the Supreme Court to settle the question. A decision is expected within a year.
Earlier court rulings have made it clear that state and federal governments can bar the use of public funds for abortions. But can the government restrict the right of doctors and other health personnel to speak, to express an opinion or to offer advice that is perfectly legal? Can regulations prohibit the use of a certain word in a publicly funded facility? The administration continues to insist that the government can limit the information given to pregnant teenagers, welfare mothers, AIDS victims and other poor women served in Title X clinics.
The court should strike this mean-spirited regulation. If it does not, Congress should make it clear that while federal funds can't be used to provide abortions, they cannot be invoked as a justification for barring discussion, censoring medical advice or failing to give poor women complete information about their health and their options.