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Election of Clinton Is Reshaping Debate Over Family Planning

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The election of a Democratic President who supports abortion rights has dramatically transformed the dynamics of the debate over federal abortion and family-planning policy.

With the threat of a Presidential veto gone, Congress is poised to vote before summer on several bills that would boost funding for family-planning clinics, strengthen abortion rights, and fund sex-education programs--actions that could affect millions of teenagers.

And, while lawmakers will be forced to take sides on a host of controversial questions in connection with those debates, parental involvement in a minor's decision to terminate a pregnancy is likely to be a particularly critical issue in every one of them.

Currently, 11 states are enforcing laws that either require a minor to notify a parent or require doctors to obtain parental consent before an abortion can be performed.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that state consent laws are constitutional if they allow minors to apply for an exemption through the courts.

It appears that Congress's first major abortion-related votes may come on the "freedom of choice act,'' the linchpin of abortion-rights advocates' efforts to roll back conservative abortion policies. The bill is slated for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee this week, and is likely to receive floor consideration this spring.

The bill would explicitly establish a woman's right to obtain an abortion. Supporters say it simply codifies Roe v. Wade, the High Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973. Opponents say it goes far beyond that by barring most state restrictions on abortions, including some restrictions--such as parental-consent laws and mandatory waiting periods for minors--that were later upheld by the Supreme Court.

Parental Involvement at Issue

Lawmakers on both sides of the abortion issue are expected to propose amendments that would allow some restrictions, and parental involvement is certain to be addressed.

Some abortion-rights advocates oppose any amendments that would restrict a woman's right to choose.

"These bills mandate healthy family communication, and sometimes that doesn't exist,'' Sarah Pines, a spokeswoman for the National Abortion Rights Action League, said of parent-involvement statutes.

Alternative procedures that allow minors fearful of notifying parents to obtain permission through the courts are not adequate protection, some argue, because they disproportionately benefit well-educated, middle-class women.

Conservative supporters of consent laws argue that families are informed when their child has other medical treatments and that abortion should not be exempted.

"When any kind of medical procedure is done on a child, the parent should be notified,'' said Elizabeth Law, the executive director of the Family Research Council, who called possible parental-consent mandates in the bill "icing on a rotten cake.''

Supporters Debate Strategy

Some bill supporters believe that parental-notification language may be the strategic compromise that could ultimately insure passage.

Regardless of their own position, most observers agree that laws requiring parental involvement in minors' abortion decisions enjoy particularly broad public support. In a survey conducted by the Center for Population Options, a family-planning research group, 60 percent of the respondents said they believe abortion should be legal and available, but 70 percent also supported parental-consent laws.

In addition, President Clinton has backed parental notification.

"The bill will not pass without parental notification,'' Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, said in an interview this month. "That simply will not happen in the real world.''

"The danger was a coalition of some on the left who wanted a pure bill and some on the right who wanted no bill,'' said Mr. Frank, a member of the Judiciary Committee. "Now everybody understands.''

Indeed, when the measure was approved by the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on March 18, abortion opponents voted for an amendment offered by supporters of the bill to remove language allowing states to enact parental-involvement laws.

The version of the bill approved by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee on March 24 contains that language.

Despite Mr. Frank's assertion of unity among abortion-rights advocates, the issue is far from settled in either chamber.

Many lawmakers are preparing parental-involvement amendments, ranging from strict requirements that states enact consent laws to amendments requiring states that wish to do so insure that a judicial alternative exists.

Under Senate rules, debate and amendments are essentially unlimited. But supporters of the measure face a strategic decision in the House.

If the bill is approved by the full Judiciary Committee--where more proposed amendments are expected--it would move to the House floor, where the parameters for debate are set by the Rules Committee.

Some abortion-rights supporters want to ask for a rule that bars all amendments, or one that allows only strategic amendments offered by proponents of the bill. But many Republicans who support abortion rights have reportedly said they would join opponents in voting against such a closed rule, thereby blocking consideration of the bill.

If amendments are allowed, some proponents fear the House might vote for such provisions as a waiting period or strict parental-consent requirements.

The House leadership has not divulged its plans.

More Abortion Battlegrounds

Teenagers' access to abortion and family planning is also expected to be an issue in the debate over a variety of other measures, including:

  • Health-care reform. There is widespread speculation that the health-care proposal that Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to unveil next month will likely include coverage for comprehensive family-planning services. Some Congressional sources predict that the Administration's biggest battle over abortion will concern its treatment in the Administration plan.

Teenagers' access to abortion and family-planning services could also become an issue in the overall health-care debate.

  • Title X. The primary federal family-planning program has been operating without formal authorization since 1985 as a result of disputes over whether Title X clinics should be able to refer patients for abortions.

In 1988, the Reagan Administration issued administrative rules that barred clinic workers from discussing abortion.

President Clinton has already repealed the so-called "gag rule,'' and Congress is expected to approve legislation reauthorizing Title X.

The House approved a reauthorization bill in March, which would return to pre-Reagan requirements that clinics counsel women on all their options. It would also increase the program's funding ceiling. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee approved an identical bill on May 5, and floor action is expected soon.

Observers say senators are likely to offer amendments requiring parental notification before Title X clinics can refer minors for abortions.

Teenagers represent about a third of the clientele at the 4,000 federally funded family-planning clinics currently operating.

President Clinton has requested $500 million for the program in fiscal 1994, a 25 percent increase.

  • Title XX, the so-called "chastity act.'' Some observers had predicted that President Clinton would propose scrapping the controversial program, which provides research and education grants to develop curricula that promote adoption and abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage. (See Education Week, March 24, 1993.)

But Mr. Clinton requested $7.5 million in his 1994 budget for the Adolescent Family Life Act, lending credence to speculation that the Administration will instead propose restructuring the program.

Title XX has often been tied legislatively to Title X, and has also been operating without formal authorization.

But Congressional aides say lawmakers are unlikely to take up the issue until next year, meaning that any Congressional debate on the program's merits would come in budget negotiations.

  • The Hyde amendment. Since 1976, a rider has been included in the appropriations bill that provides funds for the departments of labor, education, and health and human services that bans Medicaid funding for abortion services. In recent years, however, the provision was added only after a bill without it was vetoed.

President Clinton has called for abolishing the provision on the grounds that it unfairly restricts poor women from seeking abortion. He has not explicitly said whether he would propose simply removing the amendment--which would effectively require Medicaid programs to provide abortion--or whether he would favor a provision allowing states to determine their own policies.

But Mr. Clinton did insert a footnote in his budget that says he "will work with Congress to facilitate an approach that is consistent with both federal and state law.''

The provision will likely be stripped completely in the House, but a compromise regarding states' rights is likely in the Senate, said an aide to Rep. William H. Natcher, D-Ky., the chairman of the House Appropriation Committee.

If Congress approves legislation allowing even limited federal funding for abortion, some lawmakers may propose amendments requiring parental involvement when those abortions are sought by minors.

For example, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., is expected to reintroduce a bill that would require programs that receive federal funds and offer abortion services to notify at least one parent of a minor.

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