Who'll be gagged next if Bush's clinic rule stands?

Debbie M. Price OP-ED, COMMENTARY

October 09, 1992|By Debbie M. Price

IMAGINE that the government forbids teachers or school administrators from telling 16-year-old students that they can drop out of school.

Dropping out is a bad thing, so the government reasons, why tell students that legally, they can do it.

Of course, the government can't prohibit the free speech of teachers. That is against the First Amendment. But the government decides it can tell teachers that if they so much as say "drop out," they lose their taxpayer-funded salary.

Ridiculous? No way the courts, the Congress, the American public would stand for such trampling of constitutional freedoms.

Think again.

This is exactly what has happened with the so-called Bush administration gag rule that prohibits the employees of federally rTC financed family-planning clinics from even mentioning abortion.

Abortion, by the way, is still legal.

We aren't talking about paying for abortions with tax dollars. Simply let a nurse or a counselor or anyone other than a doctor say the "A" word, and it's adios to $500,000 or $1 million in Title 10 money used to provide birth control, prenatal care, treatment for venereal diseases and education.

The gag rule took effect Oct. 1, sort of. At week's end, family-planning clinics across the country were still waiting for a ruling from federal district Judge Charles C. Richey.

Several Planned Parenthood affiliates in New York already have announced that they will give up federal funding rather than be gagged, and five in Tennessee have closed.

In Fort Worth, Peter Brownlie, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Tarrant County, which receives $500,000 in Title 10 money, says his staff is "not doing very much" while it waits for clarification of the government rules.

For instance, if a clinic receives two-thirds of its money from the federal government and one-third from private charities, can it dedicate its private money to counseling -- including abortion -- and its federal money to other services? Or could a clinic lose all its federal money by simply having a book about abortion on its reference shelf, as some have suggested?

How do the clinics reconcile the gag rule attached to Title 10 with the full disclosure requirements of Title 20 money?

Meanwhile, the practical effect of the law is to deny women -- particularly those with scant resources -- information they need to make vital decisions about their health care. For a small number of women who have cancer, diabetes or other conditions and should not give birth, this denial can be deadly.

Tell the women to come back later and discuss other -- unspecified -- options with a doctor? Fine. But how many of them will?

Those are the immediate and practical effects of a bad law, but there is more damage still.

This really isn't about abortion.

It is about free speech.

It is about the individual's right to information.

In its zeal to end legalized abortion, the Bush administration has crossed the line.

Set aside what you think about abortion for a minute, and think about what buying silence with tax dollars means.

Private conversations are no longer private -- if one of the people doing the talking gets government money.

Big Brother is listening.

Which brings up another question. How is the government going to know if abortion is mentioned? Will the government bug health clinics or send spies?

The rule pertains only to family-planning clinics at the moment, but who is to say that all other institutions that receive federal money -- schools, museums, libraries, hospitals -- can't be gagged?

Under the same standard, the government could prohibit doctors from giving Medicare or Medicaid patients information about procedures deemed too costly. Librarians could be prevented from mentioning controversial books -- much less putting them on the shelves. Art museums could be ordered to take paintings from the walls.

Federally funded programs that counsel victims of domestic violence could be prevented from discussing, say, divorce, if the government decided that divorce -- while still legal -- was bad for family values.

If this sounds like a doomsday scenario, it is.

It is also patently stupid.

Teen pregnancies and venereal disease and deaths from AIDS are rampant. The United States has one of the worst infant mortality rates of any developed nation in the world. And George Bush wants to take millions of dollars in federal aid from the very organizations that are combating these social ills.

Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

Debbie M. Price is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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