WASHINGTON — ON one narrow aspect of the complex abortion issue Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan appears to have taken a position at odds with the one asserted by the Bush administration this week in the United States Supreme Court. At issue is whether a physician at a government-funded family planning clinic can discuss the possibility of abortion with a pregnant woman who has a medical complication that could threaten her life if she remains pregnant.
US Solicitor General Kenneth Starr told the Supreme Court Tuesday that government regulations drawn up two years ago by the Department of Health and Human Services forbid the physician from discussing the possibility of abortion even under such circumstances. The regulations forbid an employee of such a clinic from discussing the option of abortion or making a specific referral to a facility that performs abortions, even if asked directly by a pregnant patient.
In his questioning, the court's newest Justice, David Souter, was openly skeptical of this position of Mr. Starr. ``I think you're telling us ...'' he finally said that, through the regulations, the Secretary of Health and Human Services ``may preclude'' a physician from giving his best advice.
The next morning Dr. Sullivan told reporters at a Monitor breakfast that he could not discuss the specific case before the court. But he did discuss the principle that Justice Souter had asked about, and took a position different from, that of Starr.
Sullivan said that when a pregnant woman's life is threatened ``the broad professional responsibility is for a doctor to do everything to protect the life of his patient, and if that patient's life is in danger, then that doctor does have a responsibility'' to discuss the possibility of abortion. ``While we are opposed to abortion, it is not absolute,'' he said.
``The issue really is what is required by the situation,'' he said at another point.
Speaking more broadly, he said that abortion counseling ``should not be part of the regular public health program.''