Sen. Gordon Humphrey and others are threatening to bring up an amendment to the tax bill that would deny tax-exempt status to charitable organizations that finance, perform or provide facilities for abortions. Congress has pretty consistently refused in recent years to provide federal funding for abortions. The senator said the granting of tax-exempt status to institutions that abet abortions is backdoor funding that should also be refused, adding, "I wouldn't characterize the killing of innocent human life as charitable in any sense of the word."

sk The election-year proposal may be brought up for televised debate on Thursday, the day the National Right to Life Committee is preparing to open its national convention in Colorado. It has therefore created a little stir in the Senate. It is said to have given pause to such tax-bill stalwarts as Majority Leader Bob Dole and Dave Durenberger, who until now had been urging members to withhold amendments.

sk The issue arose at the president's meeting with the Republican congressional leadership yesterday morning. The president said that although he agreed with the sponsors' objective he didn't want to pile any more burdens on the tax bill than the heavy one it already has. He was quoted by House Minority Leader Bob Michel as saying that "while he's supporting of the issue, it's completely extraneous to what he considered to be good tax policy. . . . Naturally, he wants to see the tax bill move as expeditiously as it can and without being crippled with amendments."

That's one reason for killing off this amendment. There's another. It's the worst kind of tax policy imaginable, a treacherous path down which it would be madness for Congress to proceed. You don't even need to reach the question of what federal policy toward abortion should be. It was long ago sensibly decided as a matter of national policy to give tax-exempt status to certain organizations -- charitable, educational and others -- that are set up not to make private profit but to provide public service. There are limits put on such organizations -- on the extent to which they can lobby, for example. But other than that, Congress and the executive branch have been careful not to try to distinguish between "good charities" and "bad charities."

sk,2 Imagine what follows if you do. You grant exempt status to charities currently in favor, deny it to those that somehow offend, even though what they are doing is legal. The Supreme Court has said there are limits to how far government at any level can go in outlawing abortion. At least we don't have to pay for it, opponents in Congress have said. But supporters of this amendment would take the government beyond this financial question. The government would be using the tax code to pick and choose among charities, a danger zone into which no sensible legislator can want to go. It's a terrible precedent, and the Senate should put it aside.