Opponents of family planning programs, flushed with success in disrupting programs in developing countries, have turned their attack on domestic programs. Again their strategy is to label a vote in favor of family planning a vote in favor of abortion. In fact, the programs in question do not involve abortion. But since only the bravest congressmen are willing to run the risk of being associated, however unfairly, with a "pro- abortion" vote, this strategy has been successful in diluting the solid majority support that family planning programs actually enjoy.

No federally supported family planning clinic provides or recommends abortions -- a fact recently reconfirmed by the General Accounting Office after a congressionally authorized review. But this finding does not satisfy groups such as the American Life League that oppose most widely used methods of contraception and which insist that "in practice they (the clinics) encourage abortion." They are promoting an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Jack Kemp, denying federal aid to any group that informs pregnant women that abortion is a legal option or that, in a separate facility and with nongovernment funds, performs abortions.

Family planning agencies, which include state and local health departments and hospitals as well as clinics run by nonprofit groups, say they could not accept money on these terms. To do so, they say, would be to violate medical ethics by withholding relevant information from a patient. Some also question the constitutionality of such a prohibition on the free flow of information. Moreover, denying funds to agencies that, independently, perform abortions would deny funds not only to the many Planned Parenthood Federation and other independent clinics -- a favorite target of the Far Right -- but also to many state hospitals and clinics, some of which are under court order to provide abortion services to low-income women.

It would be an unforgivable act of political cowardice if Congress, out of fear that its action would be misrepresented, were to disrupt the carefully built network of family planning services -- a network that actually prevents hundreds of thousands of abortions every year. While many people in this country have serious misgivings about abortion under various circumstances, the great majority support family planning for themselves and for others. Congress needs to start giving this subject the serious attention it deserves instead of running for cover every time someone whispers "abortion."