WASHINGTON -- A federal judge ruled yesterday that the Bush administration acted illegally in putting out rules barring any mention of abortion to pregnant women by nurses and counselors at federally funded clinics.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey, in an oral ruling from the bench, told the Department of Health and Human Services that it should have obtained the public's reaction before issuing the latest version of the so-called gag rule.
Although President Bush and other administration officials have said repeatedly that the new rules would allow clinic doctors to say anything they want about abortion, most family planning clinics that get federal money seldom have doctors do the counseling of pregnant patients.
That task is routinely done by nurses or staff aides, and it is very clear that the new rule would forbid them from discussing abortion at all.
Judge Richey is not expected to put his ruling into writing until next week, but lawyers involved in the case said it was likely that the administration will not be able to put the rule into effect at the start of next month as it had planned.
More than 4,000 clinics nationwide get federal aid for family planning care, but many of them -- including the largest group, run by Planned Parenthood Federation -- have said they would do without the money rather than obey the gag rule. Monday was to be the deadline for clinics to start obeying or risk the loss of federal aid.
Each year, the government provides some $136 million for pregnancy and birth control clinics under the Title X program.
Although the Reagan and Bush administrations have been trying for nearly five years to stop discussion of abortion as an option for women who go to federally funded clinics, no such ban has ever gone into effect.
The Supreme Court upheld an earlier version of the gag rule a year ago, but internal squabbles in the administration had delayed enforcement planning until this spring.
It now appears that any enforcement of the ban is, at the earliest, still months away. The administration's initial reaction to Judge Richey's ruling was that it would appeal the decision rather than put the new rules up for public comment.
"We will refrain" from trying to enforce the ruling in the wake of yesterday's decision, Michael Astrue, general counsel at Health and Human Services, told the Associated Press. Instead, he indicated, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be asked to overturn the judge's ruling.
James L. Feldesman, a lawyer for the group that challenged the rules in court, said that the new version "for the moment is deader than a doornail." He represents the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, which in turn represents more than 85 percent of the clinics receiving Title X funds.