Proposed Reagan administration changes in a key family-planning law are likely to face lengthy court challenges. Suits to overturn the controversial changes are likely to come from at least two groups, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Association. Both organizations would also seek a temporary restraining order, pending the outcome of the court challenges.
The most important elements of the White House proposals would forbid those clinics that receive federal funds from telling a pregnant woman that an abortion is one of her options, or from telling her where she can obtain an abortion if she asks.
If these and other changes in what is known as the Title X program do ultimately take effect, however, they will have a profound effect on the way the approximately 4,000 family-planning clinics receiving federal funds advise their clients, most of whom are poor women and teen-agers.
``It's ironic. The Title X program is really the one program that the federal government has to prevent the need for abortion by, in a fairly uncomplicated way, presenting information about family planning'' to poor women, says William W. Hamilton Jr., director of the Washington office of the Planned Parenthood Federation. He says the changes ``would basically destroy the Title X program.''
Thus the long-running debate over abortion has reached a new phase: attempted administrative action. Efforts by anti-abortionists to change federal laws in Congress to prevent mention of abortion failed, so have efforts to overturn in the courts the Roe v. Wade decision by the United States Supreme Court, which permitted states to legalize abortion.
Families and individuals also receive family-planning information from private physicians. Most family-planning clinics do not provide abortions, which are performed at a number of legal sites, probably in the thousands, including hospitals, physicians' offices, and clinics devoted solely to providing abortions.
Approximately 1.5 million Americans have abortions each year, about 400,000 of them teen-agers.
Under Title X of the Public Health Service Act, the US government provides $133 million to 4,000 clinics. These examine women before providing them with contraceptive aid. When women are found to be pregnant, ``as often happens,'' Mr. Hamilton says, the clinics are required under Title X to provide them with ``nondirective'' information about their choices: to have and keep their baby, to give the baby up for adoption, or to have an abortion.
Current law forbids a clinic getting federal funds to advocate abortion, or provide an abortion paid for with federal funds (except to save the life of the mother).
Under the proposed changes no clinic receiving federal funds would be allowed to mention that abortion is an option. Title X forbids a clinic from promoting abortion, and the administration takes the view that to mention abortion is to promote it. ``It is unreasonable to assume,'' the Public Health Service says in explaining the changes, ``that counseling and referrals for abortion do not indeed `encourage or promote' it.''
These changes ``would create essentially a two-tiered system,'' Hamilton says. ``The government would provide limited and essentially skewed'' advice to poor women who are pregnant, ``while the affluent would be able to obtain a full range of services.''
The legal challenge Hamilton's and other organizations are expected to mount will have two bases: one, that, based on First Amendment rights of free speech, it violates the rights of physicians by preventing them from giving full information to patients; and, two, that the intent of Congress over the years has been to have clinics provide full information, including answers on abortions, to pregnant patients.