Jo Ann Gasper, deputy assistant secretary of health and human services for population affairs, was dismissed for insubordination yesterday in a dispute over abortion and the $142.5 million federal family planning program.
"I got fired," said Gasper, a strong foe of abortion.
Behind her ouster -- which was based on her refusal to renew two grants to Planned Parenthood groups despite direct orders from her superior -- was a dispute over her efforts to tighten abortion restrictions to a degree exceeding what HHS officials believed permissible without a change in the law.
Gasper has been seeking for months to deny funds to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), alleging violation of various rules, but higher officials, who also oppose abortion, have blocked her, saying some of her proposed moves overstepped the law.
The firing is expected to set off protests from antiabortion groups and members of Congress such as Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.).
"We don't like it; we think it's outrageous," David O'Steen of the National Right to Life Committee said last night.
However, William W. Hamilton Jr., Planned Parenthood Federation's Washington office director, said, "I hope the program will now be put back in the hands of professionals and kept out of the hands of political extremists." Hamilton said, "Jo Ann was sort of the Ollie North of the department of HHS."
Gasper said that yesterday that she refused -- as she had several times previously -- to obey an order from Assistant Secretary for Health Robert E. Windom to renew grants to PPFA and to a state Planned Parenthood group that uses the funds to train nurse practitioners. She said Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen repeated the order and, when she again refused to issue the grants, told her, "You are fired, effective immediately."
HHS press officer Chuck Kline said Gasper was ousted for "refusal to carry out a direct and legally appropriate order from her supervisor" to "temporarily renew funding for several family planning agencies while investigating allegations they might be in violation" of program requirements.
"HHS Secretary Bowen reiterated his commitment to the right-to-life position and the Reagan administration policy on family planning but was compelled to relieve Mrs. Gasper of her position in the face of her insubordination," Kline said.
Under the program, federal grants to fund family planning clinics may not be used to perform or advocate abortion. But the law has never been interpreted to exclude from the program an organization, such as Planned Parenthood, that uses its own funds to perform abortion, as long as it does not use the federal funds for that purpose.
In January Gasper, acting on her own, directed that all Planned Parenthood clinics be ousted from the program. She did not charge that the group was using the funds to perform or advocate abortion, but rather that its general support of abortion violated a rule requiring participants to be in tune with the purposes of the law. Windom rescinded the order.
In the latest dispute, she said she did not sign the grant renewals because she wanted to examine whether the recipients were in accord with the purposes of the law.