Bushwhacked on Abortion Advice

July 12, 1991

President Bush says he wants to find a compromise with congressional Democrats on the issue of abortion counseling in federally funded family planning facilities. The House of Representatives' 353-74 vote in favor of an appropriations bill that allows such counseling wonderfully concentrated the president's mind. He had supported existing regulations forbidding counseling and promised to veto legislation rewriting them. Those regulations are much too harsh. They forbid physicians in such clinics from even mentioning the word abortion, even to women they feel it is their unavoidable professional obligation to so counsel.

The regulations, which the Supreme Court upheld last May, on a 5-4 vote, are not that old. They were promulgated by the Reagan Department of Health and Human Services in 1988. The law the regulations are meant to carry out was passed in 1970. All it did was ban the actual performance of abortions in federally funded clinics. Even the Supreme Court admitted in May that the 1970 law does not mandate the harsh interference with professional speech mandated by the 1988 regulations. The court ruled merely that Congress had left the executive branch enough leeway to interpret its intent through restrictive regulations.

That was an absurd (and probably deliberate) misreading of congressional intent by the executive branch. The House has now made that obvious. (It was also an absurd misreading of Congress by the Supreme Court. We assume that was not deliberate, though we have noted a tendency of this court to prefer the executive branch over the legislative.)

The Senate is sure to follow the House on this. Some conservative Republicans say the recent lopsided House vote was misleading. They say they can still sustain a veto. The president obviously does not share that view.

President Bush ought to "compromise" by accepting the pre-1988 status quo -- one which, after all, was endorsed by his Republican predecessors, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and, for seven of his eight years in office, Ronald Reagan. All these new regulations would do is take a gag out of the mouths of health care professionals whose responsibility it is to provide poor women with the same honest medical advice all other women in society expect to get.

According to recent polls, George Bush has closed the gender gap. He is the first Republican president in years to get the same approval rating among women as among men. A fight over abortion with Democrats in Congress (and with Democratic presidential hopefuls) could cost him support among women. A veto is not a good idea, especially since supporting new clinic regulations along the lines the House has approved does not require him to abandon his opposition to abortion.

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