The Supreme Court yesterday considered the constitutionality of regulations that prohibit federally funded family planning clinics from discussing abortion, with the newest justice, David H. Souter, expressing concern that the rules stop doctors from giving women needed medical advice.

Speaking for the Bush administration, Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr defended the regulations, which bar physicians and other workers at federally funded clinics from giving women any information about abortion, even on request, or from stating if abortion is medically indicated.

Souter pressed him about what would happen if a doctor were to conclude that a pregnant women is in imminent danger under circumstances in which the doctor would normally recommend that she consider abortion.

"To say, 'Your health is in danger, you do need treatment,' that is absolutely fine," Starr replied. But, he said, "To actually go forward . . . and to counsel, 'You need an abortion,' is beyond the mandate" of the program, which prohibits the use of abortion "as a method of family planning."

Souter appeared troubled by Starr's contention that doctors are limited by the fact that they work in what the solicitor general described as a "specialized" program limited to "preventive services, pre-conceptional services."

"You are telling us that . . . the physician cannot perform a normal professional responsibility . . . even though that responsiblity does not violate the prohibition against using abortion counseling for family planning," he said. "I think you are telling us that in that circumstance . . . the secretary {of Health and Human Services} in effect may preclude professional speech."

The question of abortion rights received scant attention yesterday during oral arguments in the case, Rust v. Sullivan. Neither side, nor any of the justices, even mentioned the court's 1973 abortion decision, Roe v. Wade. Instead, the argument focused on whether the regulations, adopted in 1988 but largely unenforced during the legal challenge, violate freedom of speech.

Some justices, including Souter and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, both likely swing votes in the case, also appeared interested in the question of whether the regulations exceed the authority Congress granted in the underlying statute that set up the federal family planning program in 1970 -- a line of inquiry that could result in the court ducking some of the difficult constitutional issues posed by the case.

Until the regulations at issue yesterday were adopted, Title X of the act had been interpreted to permit clinics to provide "non-directive" counseling -- informing pregnant women that abortion was among their options and referring them on request to abortion providers. Title X provides $140 million each year to some 4,000 clinics serving 5 million women annually.

The new rules prohibit any discussion that would encourage or promote abortion and require clinics to refer pregnant clients for pre-natal care that will protect the health of mother and unborn child.

Justice John Paul Stevens, following up on Souter's questions, asked Starr whether doctors practicing in situations covered by Title X would be allowed to tell patients with tonsil problems that they should have a tonsillectomy. They would not, Starr said, because that would be "practicing beyond the scope of the program."

Arguing against the regulations on behalf of Planned Parenthood and the state and city of New York, Harvard Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe told the court that the government's description of the program as simply saying "see you later" to pregnant women is inaccurate, since women must be referred for pre-natal care.

"We depend on our doctors to tell us the whole truth, whoever is paying the medical bill, the patient or the government, whether in a Title X clinic or in the Bethesda Naval Hospital," Tribe said, referring to the facility where the justices receive medical care.

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia noted that Title X-funded physicians promote contraception -- a position that is not "viewpoint-neutral" and asked Tribe how this limit squared with his argument that the government, in dispensing funds, cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.

Tribe conceded that "total viewpoint neutrality in this area . . . is difficult to achieve" but said that, under the regulations, "truthful information that may be relevant is being deliberately withheld from people who have every reason to expect it."