Things that Make Republican Loyalists Uneasy in a Presidential Year Gagging on the Rules

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 27, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- There is a touch of pleasure in watching the Bush people gag on their very own gag rule. The rule that was designed to cut off free speech about abortion is now making it harder for the Republicans to clear their throats. Somebody out there better perform a political Heimlich maneuver on the Party.

This gag rule was devised to prevent anyone who worked in one of the 4,000 federally funded family-planning clinics from using the ''A'' word. Doctors, nurses and counselors, who were already prohibited from performing abortions with federal money, were now forbidden from speaking about abortion.

Anyone on the government payroll had to deliver the party line. If a patient asked about abortion, the clinic worker had to take out the little government crib sheet and read, ''The project does not consider abortion an appropriate method of family planning.'' The End.

The government was not only in the bedroom; it was in the examining room. And the prescreened and litmus-tested Supreme Court upheld its right to be there. Yes, the court said last May, medical people who work for the government may be required to speak for the government rather than for themselves.

Well, it wasn't just card-carrying members of the pro-choice camp who found this outrageous. The Congress voted to override the gag rule. But the president vetoed their override. We were back to square one. Or gag one. Or Gag Rule Two.

Gag Rule Two is the ''clarification'' released last Friday and modified and explained every day since. It is, in fact, a model of de-clarification.

At first hearing, it seemed to imply that doctors were exempted ** from the ban. Free speech would be allotted by degrees: an M.D. would get it, an R.N. wouldn't. This was elitist, sexist and cynical -- little of the counseling, after all, is done by doctors -- but it would allow a few words to escape from around the edges of the gag.

No sooner was this announced, however, than it was denied. The president's position ''has not changed'' said his spokespeople. Now, no one knows for sure who can say what in a family planning clinic. The rules are a model of the muddle created out of Mr. Bush's two contradictory positions. He's on the record in favor of the gag rule and a private doctor-patient relationship. No wonder he's choking; watch out for your lap.

You don't have to be Oliver Stone to see a political conspiracy in this carefully constructed confusion. This is sort of doublespeak we're in for in '92.

What the Republicans are trying to do is figure out how to keep the abortion issued tamped down for another eight months. They have to find a way to let the semi-sleeping pro-choice majority lie.

In the Republican Party, where traditional conservatives like George Bush I are often uncomfortable with New Conservatives like George Bush II, that means talk of a ''wide tent,'' with room for people who disagree on abortion. It means finding some space for professionals, like AMA doctors, who oppose the notion of government silencers.

In the election, it will mean more verbal stuttering toward a safe strategy that sides with the pro-life constituency while it winks at the majority worrying about the loss of abortion rights. That wink says: Don't worry, nothing is really changing. You can still find a doctor. Your daughter can still find a state where abortion will be legal. Your wife can still find a clinic. Until of course, she can't.

Republican success is based on the belief that as long as the right to abortion remains, most middle-class voting Americans will overlook the limits -- on poor women, rural women and young women. There's some sense in that strategy.

Abortion was not a deciding issue in the past presidential election. But in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings and in the advent of the upcoming Pennsylvania case that could overturn Roe, that could all change. The last thing the Bush people want is clarity.

For the moment, then, we are getting a trial run on a campaign of confusion. This doublespeak says that you can be in favor of privacy for a doctor and against it for a patient. That you can support the right of medical free speech except for one little word, abortion.

Do the regulations sound like Republicans talking with political marbles in their mouths? They should just try it with a gag.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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