WASHINGTON & — WASHINGTON -- Contrary to the Bush administration's recent assertion that doctors may discuss abortion in federally financed clinics, the rule that bans abortion counseling continues to apply to them, experts told lawmakers yesterday.
Two weeks ago, the administration announced that its rule forbidding abortion counseling in 4,000 government-financed family planning clinics applied only to nurses and counselors, not to doctors.
But at a hearing yesterday before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, doctors and lawyers on both sides of the abortion issue said that the rule actually made no distinction between doctors and other professionals and that the administration's position carried no legal weight. They said any effort to exempt doctors could result in legal challenges from anti-abortion groups.
The testimony yesterday suggested that the administration's effort to steer a political course between opponents of abortion and groups advocating abortion rights may have failed to achieve that goal.
Medical organizations -- including the American Medical Association, the American Medical Women's Association, the American Nurses Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists -- continued to oppose the administration's position strenuously.
Spokesmen for the various medical organizations said in testimony yesterday that the administration's latest position gave no help to doctors, who they said would still be bound by the counseling rules.
At the same time, lawyers from groups that are either neutral on the abortion issue or that have supported the administration's previous stand said that the effort to exempt doctors -- who make up a minuscule proportion of the workers in family planning clinics -- carried no legal weight.
But yesterday, Dr. William Archer, head of the Office of Population Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, testified that he would not enforce the rules against doctors who discuss abortion "as long as I am in this job."
Asked what was to prevent him from just changing his mind later and deciding to enforce the rules against doctors, Dr. Archer said he was acting on instructions from the president, put forward in a letter last November.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearing, asked Dr. Archer whether doctors might now provide abortion counseling under the latest guidelines. "If a doctor feels that is appropriate in his or her professional judgment, yes absolutely," Dr. Archer told the California Democrat.
But when Mr. Waxman asked if a doctor could refer a woman who wanted an abortion to an abortion clinic, Dr. Archer said the doctor's counseling did have some limits. A doctor may not tell a woman where she can get an abortion, but may only read a list of approved clinics compiled by local family planning officials. The list may include some clinics that carry out abortion, but not if the clinic's chief mission is abortion.
Mr. Waxman then asked what would happen if the woman took the same list and asked the doctor which of the clinics on the list might give her an abortion. Dr. Archer said the doctor would not be permitted to tell her.
The counseling rules also state that no family planning clinic receiving federal funds may carry out abortions as well.
But yesterday, in another attempt to soften the rule's effect, Mr. Archer said the administration did not intend to enforce the rule against hospitals that provided both services.