Bill to legalize abortion counseling clears panel


WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats, aided by a few renegade Republicans, are wasting little time in their effort to overturn a Supreme Court decision upholding regulations that bar abortion counseling in federally funded clinics.

Yesterday, two weeks after the high court handed down its ruling, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee handily endorsed legislation lifting a Bush administration "gag-rule" ban on such guidance. A House panel is expected to adopt similar legislation next week.

"There's confusion over the relationship of this [issue] to abortion," said Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I, co-author of the bill. "It's just the right of a low-income woman, a pregnant woman, to have her options explained."

Yet the eventual bill appears destined to spark a fiery clash with President Bush over the highly charged abortion issue, and to do so in the shadow of the 1992 presidential campaign.

"It's George Bush's nightmare," said Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo. "He can run, but he can't hide from the abortion issue."

Many Democrats do hope that the impending debate will find Mr. Bush and his Republican allies staring at the wrong end of a political howitzer. Recent polls have shown that a broad majority of Americans favor allowing federally funded abortion clinics to list abortion among the options available to pregnant women.

The politics surrounding the court decision in the case of Rust vs. Sullivan, however, may not prove to be as clear-cut as many partisans hope.

Mr. Bush did send a strongly worded letter to Republican congressional leaders urging them to fight efforts to overturn the court ruling, warning against a "misunderstanding of my views or convictions." But a number of the president's GOP allies support the legislation anyway: Yesterday, two Republicans joined the majority Democrats to push the bill, itself co-authored by Republican Mr. Chafee, through the Senate panel on a 12-5 vote.

Nor is it clear that anti-abortion forces will be able to count on all of their traditional allies in the impending fight.

Wisconsin Representative Steve Gunderson, a conservative, anti-abortion Republican, says he has yet to decide how he will come out on the issue -- largely because he has yet to determine whether the primary issue at stake involves abortion rights or freedom of speech.

"We pride ourselves as being the party that stands against political correctness on the nation's campuses," said Mr. Gunderson. "Maybe we should be careful about curtailing the right of medical personnel to communicate to their patients."

The bills now wending through the legislative machinery would require federally funded abortion clinics to provide women with "all legal and medical options regarding their pregnancies" -- a phrase specifically intended to include abortion.

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