President Clinton's decision to accede to new abortion restrictions in return for congressional approval of United Nations funding drew criticism yesterday from women's groups and gave Bill Bradley an issue to use against Vice President Gore among liberal Democratic primary voters.
Under the tentative compromise, Congress will approve nearly $1 billion to cover U.S. debts to the United Nations, while the president agreed to language prohibiting family planning groups receiving foreign aid from using their own money to perform abortions or to advocate abortion rights.
The abortion agreement is largely symbolic. Clinton can sign a waiver exempting the family planning groups from the restrictions if, as is expected, he is willing to accept a $12 million cut in the $385 million budgeted for international family planning.
But if approved by Congress later this week, the agreement would for the first time write into law tough new restrictions on dozens of international family planning organizations. President Reagan put similar rules in place through executive orders, but Clinton overturned them when he took office in 1993.
Clinton administration officials said the president was forced to accept the abortion language as the price for winning support of the U.N. money--a top priority--and they said the impact on family planning groups would be minimal. Since the new abortion language is to be attached to an annual appropriations bill, it will also expire at the end of the fiscal year.
Still, Clinton's decision left supporters of abortion rights furious, while antiabortion forces crowed.
"It is ironic that the very same president who ended the oppressive executive order . . . [of] the Reagan and Bush administrations will be the first president to write similar restrictions into law," said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Janet Parshall, spokeswoman for the antiabortion Family Research Council, said Clinton "has been hoisted by his own petard and had to choose between two fair-haired children"--abortion rights and U.N. dues.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said administration critics "will see, once this is down on paper and evident to everybody, that it will not interfere with the family planning programs around the world."
U.N. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke was more direct. "The national security interests of the U.S. have been served, finally, belatedly, after one of the worst and most difficult negotiations I've ever experienced," he said. The president will exercise his waiver authority, Holbrooke said, and the agreement "will have minimal impact where it really matters, on women who need advice on family planning."
Under laws on the books since 1973, no U.S. money granted to international groups can be used for abortions; the new language would prohibit the organizations, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, from performing or advocating abortions with their own money if they take money from the United States.
Supporters of abortion rights contend that the restrictions would violate the free speech guarantees of the Constitution if applied in the United States. Opponents of abortion contend existing rules preventing U.S. money from going for abortions are meaningless because money is "fungible"--meaning groups use the money to cover non-abortion activities, with a similar amount then transferred to pay for abortions.
While abortion rights and payment of U.N. dues are both supported by many Democratic primary voters and caucus goers, abortion rights is by far the more important issue, and both candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination went out of their way yesterday to distance themselves from the proposed new arrangement.
Bradley sharply criticized the deal. "I would not support it if I was there now," he said. "A woman's right to choose is absolutely essential."
At a forum in Redmond, Wash., Gore appeared to explicitly separate himself from the Clinton-Congress agreement. "I do not favor bargaining away any critical aspect of protecting a woman's right to choose," he said. Later, however, at a news briefing, Gore said the administration was doing the best it could under the circumstances.
Despite the opposition, the agreement does not appear likely to provoke a rebellion in Democratic ranks. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a key player in the debate and an abortion rights supporter, said the arrangement "constitutes a gag rule which I cannot support," but said she would have to see the legislation in its entirety before she decides how to vote.
Staff writers Eric Pianin and Ceci Connolly and special correspondent Colum Lynch contributed to this report.