IN one stroke, the United States Supreme Court has thrown the women's movement into a frenzy, federally funded family-planning clinics into crisis, and pro-choice advocates in Congress into high gear. It has also raised questions about the rights of people and organizations that accept federal funds. The court's 5-to-4 decision last week to uphold a US government regulation that forbids federally financed clinics from discussing abortion means that 4,000 facilities around the country face a choice of limiting their speech or giving up their subsidies.
Funds or information?
Some clinics announced immediately that they will do without the funds rather than withhold information, saying they do not wish to act ``unethically'' in their dealings with patients. But they hope that legislation in Congress designed to override the court's decision can be enacted before they would have to comply with the ruling, made in a case called Rust v. Sullivan.
In the meantime, both sides in the emotionally fraught abortion debate have stepped up their battle in the news media.
``The Supreme Court has rejected the bizarre concept that the Constitution or `medical ethics' require that abortion be treated the same as contraception,'' said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.
Mr. Johnson called the decision ``a defeat for those organizations that demand tax dollars to promote abortion as a `family-planning option.' ''
Faye Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said after the ruling was announced: ``We see [the May 23] landmark decision of the Supreme Court an outrageous and unimaginable blow, not just to women and clinics, but to free speech in this country.''
The regulation requires clinics that receive federal Title X funds - the part of a 1970 law that finances and regulates clinics - to refer pregnant patients for prenatal care. If a woman asks any questions about abortion, such as where she can get one, the counselor or doctor is required to state that the clinic ``does not consider abortion an appropriate method of family planning.''
For three years, court orders have prevented the regulation, announced in 1988 under the Reagan administration, from being implemented. Now the way is clear for enactment, which will take place in about two months.
The only way the regulation can be overturned is through congressional legislation. In the Senate and the House of Representatives an amendment has been introduced to the bill funding Title X, which currently provides $141 million - $30 million to Planned Parenthood alone - to clinics that serve some 4 million women a year.
The amendment, introduced by Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island and Reps. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon and John Porter (D) of Illinois, states that clinics should provide pregnant women with ``non-directive information about prenatal care and delivery, adoption, foster care, and termination of pregnancy.'' The aim, says Representative Wyden, is to allow women to decide for themselves which option is best.
But the amendment faces an uphill battle. President Bush would be expected to veto it should it reach his desk; so far, no previous votes on the matter have indicated that supporters can generate the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. Last year, when Senator Chafee introduced an amendment on this issue, it passed 62 to 36.
``We're getting close,'' says Wyden. ``It seems like every week or two we're picking up numbers. Look at the vote on the rights of women in the military.''
Last week, the House of Representatives approved a measure allowing women in the military to obtain abortions overseas.
Since Congress is the last venue for blocking the Title X restriction, pro-choice advocates are planning a full-scale lobbying campaign.
According to Jane Johnson, vice-president for affiliate development and education at Planned Parenthood, the lost federal funds would have to be replaced by private contributions and city and state funds. Foundations have been calling to discuss possible contributions, she says. Of Planned Parenthood's 170 affiliates, which account for some 900 clinics, 44 do not receive any Title X funds. On the other hand, some clinics in the lowest-income areas rely on Title X for up to 45 percent of their funding.
The Supreme Court ruling does not directly affect Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established abortion as a constitutional right. But abortion-rights advocates see last week's decision as the latest indication that the court may well overturn Roe some day. Antiabortion laws enacted in Pennsylvania, Guam, and Utah are all heading for the Supreme Court.
On that score, the decision of Justice David Souter to cast the decisive vote in favor of the regulations came as an important bellwether for both supporters and opponents of abortion. Though the case was technically over freedom of speech and not abortion rights, both sides now tend to think Justice Souter - the newest member of the court and one whose views on abortion have been closely held - will vote to overturn Roe.
Even though the immediate tempest following the Rust decision has been over abortion, the central issue of the case - freedom of speech - is likely to reverberate for years. By allowing the government to say that it will fund ``preconception services'' but not abortion counseling, the justices are giving the government an unprecedented degree of control over conversations that take place on federally funded time.
At the suggestion that the ruling would affect low-income women disproportionately, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that they will be ``in no worse position than if Congress had never enacted Title X.''