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Forced speech, written in Washington

Dr. Irving Rust runs a community health center in the South Bronx called The Hub. He is at the center of a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rust vs. Sullivan, that will help determine how far anti-abortion zealots can push the federal government into limiting free speech. Before 1988, when a pregnant woman came to Dr. Rust for advice he was required to tell her by the law and his own professional standards about all of her options, including information about abortion.

During the last year of the Reagan administration, the regulation was changed. Not only were doctors at federally funded clinics prohibited by the government from mentioning abortion. They were told precisely how they must respond when asked about it: "The project does not consider abortion an appropriate method of family planning." And they were prohibited from referring patients to doctors who performed abortions.

When the case was heard by the Supreme Court this week, the new Justice David H. Souter asked a question of the administration's lawyer arguing that the regulation be upheld that went straight to the heart of the issue: "You are telling us that a physician can't perform his usual professional responsibility? You are telling us that the secretary (of Health and Human Services) may preclude professional speech?" Yes, that's what the lawyer was saying.

This regulation tells a doctor who is visited by a woman whose life is threatened by her pregnancy, and there were 71,000 of those who went to federally funded clinics in 1988, that the federal government can prohibit the doctor from speaking the truth to her, truth that could mean the difference between life and death. How extreme can you get?

Souter's question should not be taken as an indication of how he might vote on this or any other issue, but it certainly showed the censors for what they are.