Let's have more talk about abortion, not less

Anna Quindlen

October 08, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

Rochester, N.Y. - THEY'RE DOING the gag-rule shuffle, here in this upstate city where the Planned Parenthood chapter is celebrating its 60th birthday. The annual budget for family-planning services usually includes $340,000 of federal Title X money. But the board members and the staff have had to cast around for months now, figuring out where they'll find that money if the federal funds fall through.

To receive Title X money, they have to promise not to discuss abortion, not to answer questions or provide referrals. That is something they simply cannot do in good conscience.

Planned Parenthood in New York City may lose almost half a million dollars for its Hub clinic in the South Bronx, in a neighborhood that is in the single poorest congressional district in America, where infant mortality rates are competitive with those in Third World countries.

No matter that the Hub provides prenatal care and pediatric services for those who want to have their babies, and contraception for those who don't want to get pregnant in the first place. The motto of the gag rule might well be: Cut off your funds to spite your face.

It is a ridiculous thing, and everyone knows that this is so. But the gag, like the coat hanger, has become something of a symbol of the abortion debate.

It has become commonplace for legislators who support the right to legal abortion to be disinvited from functions sponsored by Catholic institutions.

Georgetown University revoked its official recognition of an abortion-rights discussion group only a year after the school granted it, a year in which church officials lambasted the university and some alumni complained to Rome.

Sad to say, the gag works both ways. The governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Casey, tried to give a speech in New York City explaining how it is possible to be both liberal and against abortion. It was a speech he was not permitted to deliver at the Democratic Convention, and he has complained bitterly about that fact ever since.

Last week he was stymied, too. Appearing before an audience that had chosen specifically to come and hear his message, the governor was so relentlessly heckled by a group of demonstrators that he finally left the stage.

What the gag rule has taught us is that reproductive freedom is not possible without free speech. You cannot competently counsel a woman who is ambivalent about a pregnancy without mentioning the safe and legal medical procedure by which she could end that pregnancy.

But the government gag rule is not about information. It is a cynical exercise in political posturing.

In New York state, for instance, clinics were advised to develop "work around" plans. "Scams," said Gregory Soehner, who runs the Rochester facility. "That's a fairly accurate description."

Devise a plan to use the federal funds for areas of the clinic not directly related to abortion and abortion counseling -- reception or maintenance or janitorial services -- and we'll forget the whole thing. Just the letter of the law. That's fitting since there's never been a bit of spirit in it.

Americans permit, even encourage, that kind of cynical exercise through their silence. It is not uncommon to hear people say they will not discuss abortion with friends because the discussion is too heated, the cost too high.

And one of the reasons we have not learned how to talk about this issue privately is that we haven't learned to talk about it publicly.

There is nothing so illuminating in refining your own views as listening to those of the opposition; perhaps that is why some went to hear Mr. Casey speak. Or perhaps they wanted to hear Mr. Casey explain the great contradiction of being against abortion but for capital punishment, to discuss being pro-life when the venue is the womb but at peace with death by lethal injection.

The gag rule is absurd. Worst case, essential family planning services will be cut, leading to even more pregnancies and more abortions. Best case, it will be overturned by Congress or by a new administration. But the gag, I fear, will continue in other arenas.

In the fight to keep women free it is important to remember this: freedom of speech is the bedrock of it all. Silence is what kept us in our place for too long. If we now silence others, our liberty is false.

No more gag rules -- that should be our goal. In clinics, in colleges, in lecture halls. Anywhere.

Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.

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