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Snipping at the Safety Net

November 09, 1987

The Senate has moved to head off the Reagan Administration's ill-considered attack on family planning programs, but the victory will be short-lived unless the House agrees that these vital programs must survive intact.

The need for legislative action arose when, at President Reagan's request, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed new regulations governing family planning programs. Those rules would deny federal money to any family planning clinic that provides counseling and referral for abortions--even to save a woman's life, a move that would seriously curtail efforts to help women avoid unplanned pregnancies. Family planning professionals also object strenuously to that provision because they would not be able to tell women their full range of options.

The Administration is now considering whether to issue its proposals as permanent rules. Physicians, women's organizations and others filed arguments against what Planned Parenthood called a dangerous and deceptive alteration of a successful federal health program.

Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R-Conn.) successfully proposed an amendment that would prohibit the Administration from applying the new rules during the rest of this fiscal year. That effectively would bar any action through the 1988 elections. The issue, a contentious one with dozens of senators and representatives lined up on either side, comes before a House-Senate conference committee on health appropriations this week.

The regulations should never have been proposed in the first place. General Accounting Office audits have repeatedly shown that the clinics do not use federal money for abortions. Such use has been forbidden since 1970, but private organizations have been able to discuss abortion as one alternative and refer patients to clinics.

In addition to being unwise, the proposals may be unconstitutional as well. They are in effect gag rules because they would keep health-care professionals from explaining to couples all their options if, for example, the prospective mother had acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The federal family program in question supports 4,500 clinics providing services to more than 5 million women. Most of them are poor. One-third of them are teen-agers. They have come to trust these clinics to provide them with help they cannot afford to receive or are reluctant to seek elsewhere. Crippling this program, as these odious proposals would do, would mean cutting away one of the last remnants of the safety net the Administration once pledged to leave in place for the disadvantaged.

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