WASHINGTON -- The nation's largest group of pregnancy and birth control clinics for the poor, run by Planned Parenthood affiliates, will forfeit $30 million or more in federal funds rather than obey a new version of the "gag rule" on discussing abortion, their national leader said yesterday.
The "vast majority" of 130 separate Planned Parenthood groups,which together run hundreds of clinics, will say no to the government money, Dr. Kenneth Edelin of Boston, chairman of the Planned Parenthood Federation, told reporters here.
That will be their reaction, he predicted, to last week's release by the Bush administration of a new set of rules to control abortion discussions with pregnant patients who visit federally funded clinics.
No version of a federal "gag rule" has ever gone into effect, but thenew rule is due to take effect in about 2 1/2 months.
Meanwhile, the administration gave its first formal indication that it will join the anti-abortion side when the Supreme Court takes up a major new test case on abortions rights in April. It asked the Supreme Court to give government lawyers time to support a Pennsylvania challenge to the basic 1973 abortion ruling in Roe vs. Wade.
The administration has twice before urged the court to overrule theRoe decision, but it had not said what it would do in the Pennsylvania case until it let the court know this week that it wanted to side with the challengers. It is expected to file an explanation of its anti-abortion stance next month.
On the clinic regulations issue, President Bush had said last fall that he expected his administration to relax the rules, dating from 1988, that all but barred any discussion of abortion at family planning clinics getting federal funds under a 1970 law.
The Supreme Court upheld the 1988 rules last year, but challenges to them mounted in Congress, leading the administration to reconsider.
The revised rules came out Friday, and administration officials went to some lengths to assure reporters that the new rules would give doctors more freedom to discuss abortion with clinic patients.
Yesterday, however, Planned Parenthood's Dr. Edelin challenged those assurances as "a deceitful spin." He said the "actual regulations" do not support that view.
And, he added, even if doctors did gain some added freedom to "mention abortion," the new rules keep in force a flat ban on discussion by clinic staff members of abortion as an option. He and others at a press conference here said that almost all the pregnancy and birth control counseling that is done at family planning clinics is by non-doctors -- nurses, nurse-practitioners and counselors.
The new rules expressly bar those kinds of clinic aides from discussing abortion, saying that only doctors may mention that option directly to patients. Doctors, however, are forbidden to refer any patient elsewhere to get an abortion.
Family planning clinics have the option of surrendering federal funds if they do not wish to obey the new version of the "gag rule." The Planned Parenthood groups' decisions are expected to lead the way for many others. Each local group will make the decision for itself.
Planned Parenthood affiliates get about $34 million of the family planning clinic grants that the federal government pays each year -- that is, nearly 25 percent of the $136 million annual total in recent years.
For individual clinics, the federal funds make up as much as 40 FTC percent of their total budgets, according to Dr. Edelin.
Planned Parenthood's largest affiliate, in Wisconsin, is expected be one of the first to cast aside federal funds. Severa Austin of Milwaukee, that group's executive director,said she would take the issue up with her board of directors next week, but she left no doubt that the decision would be to do without $2.1 million in funds -- about 23 percent of its total budget.
She said she already has started contacting other potential sources of money. Her organization has a policy against accepting "any source of funding that limits our ability to provide full information to our patients," Ms. Austin told reporters.
Dr. Edelin said that many clinics may be able to find other funds to make up for the more than $30 million they would forfeit, but only for the short term. "We could not sustain that over the long run," he added.