House Votes to Overturn 'Gag Rule'
WASHINGTON — THE United States House of Representatives has voted to overturn the administration's controversial "gag rule" policy that bars federally financed family planning clinics from providing abortion information.The vote Wednesday followed an effort by President Bush to undermine opposition to the policy and strengthen his hand in an expected veto fight. The House move came on a 272 to 156 vote to approve the appropriation bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, including a provision ordering the department not to enforce the anti-abortion rule. The vote fell short of the two-thirds margin needed to overturn a veto if Bush rejects the bill. The compromise $204 billion bill was sent to the Senate, where quick approval also was expected. The regulations prohibit federally financed family planning clinics from providing any information to their clients about abortion. The Supreme Court upheld the regulations in a May 23 decision that spurred a vigorous lobbying effort by pro-choice groups to have Congress enact a law overturning the policy. They argued the policy interferes with the doctor-patient relationship, violates free-speech guarantees, and endangers poor women's health by denying them information on all options. Supporters of the policy charged that many family planning clinics routinely recommend abortion for the women who come to them. The original purpose of the clinics is to provide preventive family planning services, and abortion is not consistent with that purpose, they said. Faced with growing opposition to the policy, even among Republicans, the president sought to allay fears about the effect of the regulations. In a Tuesday memo to HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan, Bush directed Dr. Sullivan to "ensure that the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship will be preserved and that the operation of the Title 10 family-planning program is compatible with free speech and the highest standards of medical care." The memo was circulated to members of Congress, but critics said it did solve the problem. Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois said the memo was "pretending to change" the gag rule, but "does nothing. It is rather a last-minute attempt to confuse the issue.... He attempts to tell how obviously opposite language should be interpreted." The HHS rule "prevents clinics from telling a [seriously ill] pregnant woman coming to them for help that her pregnancy might kill her," Porter said. Rep. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine said the regulations "shamelessly condemned poor women to inferior and inadequate care.... To have the government dictating the medical advice they can receive is discriminatory, insulting and harmful to women in this country."