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Picking its way through the minefield of abortion politics, the Bush administration said Friday doctors in federally financed family planning clinics may give limited advice on abortions, though nurses and counselors may not.

A rule set forth four years ago banning abortion counseling in family planning clinics has never been enforced, first because of legal challenges and more recently because the administration did not issue detailed enforcement guidelines.The Health and Human Services Department issued those guidelines Friday in a letter to regional offices that seemed to make an important exception to the counseling ban.

The action came two days after an election in Illinois in which polling showed that women who voted were concerned about abortion and sexual harassment.

One interpretation of Friday's action was that the Bush administration was trying to straddle the issue by loosening the restraints on abortion clinics while at the same time assuring anti-abortion forces that it was still firmly in their corner.

White House officials said that they had both in mind, but that assuring anti-abortion advocates was paramount. The officials characterized the exception as a minor one. A federal health official said doctors can discuss abortion but will not be free to refer women to abortion clinics.

Supporters of abortion rights called the statements cynical. Rep. Les AuCoin, D-Ore., called the rules "a complete sellout" to the conservative wing of the Republican Party and said:

"The exemption for doctors is a clever way of making it look like some fundamental change has occurred as a sop to the moderates in the Republican party. But it's a transparent political ploy because very few of the health care workers who counsel low-income women in these clinics are doctors. The people who counsel women are still gagged."