The Supreme Court Thursday upheld regulations barring doctors at federally funded family-planning clinics serving many of the nation's poorest women from discussing abortion as a legal option with pregnant clients.

The court, in a 5-4 ruling, rejected the argument of doctors and the state of New York that new restrictions on the Public Health Act of 1970 violate the First Amendment free speech rights of health-care workers, privacy rights of pregnant women and the will of Congress."The government has no constitutional duty to subsidize an activity merely because the activity is constitutionally protected and may validly choose to fund childbirth over abortion," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority.

Rehnquist said the government has "not discriminated on the basis of viewpoint; it has merely chosen to fund one activity to the exclusion of the other."

Newly appointed Justice David Souter, who refused to reveal his views on abortion during Senate confirmation hearings last summer, voted in the majority.

The court's only woman, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, dissented.

The ruling in perhaps the most closely watched case of the court's 1990-91 term is tantamount to making abortion illegal for poor women, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in the main dissent.

The court legalized abortion in its landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling.

"This is a course nearly as noxious as overturning Roe directly, for if a right (to an abortion) is found to be unenforceable, even against flagrant attempts by government to circumvent it, then it ceases to be a right at all," wrote Blackmun. "This, I fear, may be the effect of today's decision."

The Public Health Act, commonly known as Title 10, authorizes the secretary of Health and Human Services to make grants to both private and public family planning clinics.

Title 10 provides some $200 million annually to 4,000 clinics nationwide, serving nearly 5 million low-income women per year. The law always has barred funding to groups that provided abortion as a means of "family planning," but until Thursday had allowed recipients of Title 10 funds to inform patients about abortion and even refer them to abortion providers.

Other court action Thursday:

- Ruled that a spouse awarded ownership of the family home in a divorce judgment may not use federal bankruptcy law to quash a lien the other spouse has on the property.

- Ruled that police who have an owner's permission to search a car generally do not need separate permission or a court warrant to search closed containers inside the car.

- Made it more difficult to prosecute public officials accused of violating a federal law against extortion as it threw out the conviction of a former West Virginia legislator.


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Planned Parenthood debating what to do

The directors of Planned Parenthood of Utah will debate whether to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court's affirmation of a government ban on abortion counseling at federally subsidized family planning clinics.

Utah enacted a restrictive abortion law earlier this year, but it is not being enforced pending a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In anticipation of the ruling, Planned Parenthood of Utah has drafted an alternative budget to account for the potential loss of federal funding should the organization choose to ignore the court's edict.

Federal subsidies totaled about $500,000 of Planned Parenthood of Utah's $1.6 million budget for 1990, marketing coordinator Catherine Moore said.