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Justices Will Review U.S. Rules Barring Advice on Abortion

From Associated Press

The Supreme Court agreed today to review federal regulations that bar government-financed family-planning clinics from counseling about abortion.

Critics of the regulations, issued by the Reagan Administration in 1988, allege that they violate free speech and abortion rights.

At stake is the future scope of a federal program with a $200-million yearly budget. The program funds more than 4,000 clinics serving about 5 million low-income women nationwide.

A federal appeals court in New York upheld the ban on abortion counseling but other federal courts ruled that it is unconstitutional. The high court’s decision, expected sometime in 1991, should resolve the conflicting rulings.

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The family planning program, enacted by Congress as Title X of the Public Health Service Act, pays for creating and operating family-planning clinics. The 1982 law forbids clinics to use the federal money to perform abortions, but initial regulations let the clinic staffs tell women about the abortion option.

After those regulations drew fire from anti-abortion groups, the government barred clinics from using federal money to advise women that abortion is an option or to refer them to abortion clinics.

The newer regulations say federally funded clinics may not “encourage, promote or advocate abortion as a method of family planning” or distribute written materials on abortion.

The regulations also require a family-planning clinic that receives federal money to keep physically and financially separate any abortion clinic it might operate without federal money.

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If a woman visiting a federally funded family-planning clinic asks about abortion, doctors and counselors are barred from saying more than that the program “does not consider abortion an appropriate method of family planning” and are told to offer help in obtaining prenatal care.

New York state and New York City officials, the directors of two family planning clinics, Planned Parenthood and other organizations challenged the 1988 regulations in federal court the same day they were issued.

The lawsuit contended that the regulations go far beyond the restrictions imposed by the 1982 law and that they impermissibly interfere with freedom of speech and women’s choice to obtain abortions.

U.S. District Judge Louis L. Stanton in New York City upheld the regulations, and the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed by a 2-1 vote last Nov. 1.

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After stating that the regulations are consistent with the 1982 law, the appeals court ruled that the regulations do not violate any constitutional right of pregnant women or family-planning clinic staff members.

The Boston-based U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last March that the regulations are unconstitutional. So did a federal judge in Colorado.

In another action today, the court agreed to decide whether states may impose mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole for people convicted of possessing large amounts of drugs.

The justices said they will study the appeal of Ronald Harmelin, convicted in Oak Park, Mich., of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine.

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