The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the federal government's right to deny foreign aid to overseas health care organizations that promote abortion as a means of family planning. The justices let stand a lower court decision affirming the legality of a Reagan-era policy that bars aid to foreign family planning groups that either perform or promote abortions.
The ban, which affects more than $225-million spent annually on population control projects in the Third World, also denies federal funds to domestic family planning organizations that assist abortion programs outside of the United States.
The court's action, in an unsigned one-line order, came 10 days after a 5-4 decision upheld a government order forbidding doctors and nurses at federally funded clinics in the United States to talk about abortion with women seeking to avoid pregnancy or childbirth.
The court's latest decision is significant because of the impact it is likely to have on struggling family planning projects in the Third World. The U.S. government's Agency for International Development (AID), which had imposed the ban, last year provided about 40 percent of all funds that overseas family planning organizations received from foreign countries.
The case affirmed that those organizations, and the domestic agencies that support them, may not receive agency funding unless they promise not to use money from any source to "actively promote abortion as a method of family planning."
The justices refused to review a lower court ruling that said the government did not violate the First Amendment by restricting the distribution of the agency's funds to foreign groups that promise not to counsel abortion in their family planning programs.
Planned Parenthood's lawyers argued that the policy, announced by the Reagan administration at a 1984 population conference in Mexico City, violated the First Amendment by using "the immense leverage of AID funds" to prevent people from expressing views "with which the United States government disagrees."
The appeal said as many as 250,000 women die every year from "botched" abortions in the Third World, but that family planners whose programs rely on AID funds were being barred from giving advice about safe abortions. Planned Parenthood added that it lost between $3-million and $4-million in AID funding for 1991 because of its refusal to accept the restrictions.
The ban "cripples" Planned Parenthood's ability to use "its own funds in other countries" to provide information about abortion, the appeal said.
Arguing for the government, Solicitor General Kenneth Starr said the AID restriction was not unconstitutional, but "simply a refusal to subsidize a particular activity." Planned Parenthood, he said, "has no right to insist in court that a government program in which it does not wish to participate be changed into the type of program in which it would like to participate."
About 75 percent of the world's people live in countries where abortion is at least allowed if the mother's life is in danger, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a population research group. Of these, 39 percent live in countries where women can get an abortion on request.
An estimated 40-million to 60-million abortions are performed every year in the world. About 27-million are said to be clandestine.
Unlike developed countries, where a majority of abortions are had by teen-agers and young women to delay childbearing, women in developing countries usually have had several children before they turn to abortion to control their families from growing larger, studies show.
_ Information from the Los Angeles Times and Times files was used in this report.