President Barack Obama on Friday struck down the Bush administration's ban on giving federal money to international groups that perform abortions or provide abortion information — an inflammatory policy that has bounced in and out of law for the past quarter-century.
Liberal groups welcomed the decision while abortion-rights foes criticized the president. Known as the "Mexico City policy," the ban has been reinstated and then reversed by Republican and Democratic presidents since GOP President Ronald Reagan established it in 1984. Democrat Bill Clinton ended the ban in 1993, but Republican George W. Bush re-instituted it in 2001 as one of his first acts in office.
Obama issued the presidential memorandum rescinding the Bush policy without coverage by the media, late Friday afternoon — a contrast to the televised coverage of Obama's announcement Wednesday on ethics rules and Thursday's signing of orders on closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and banning torture in the questioning of terror suspects.
His action came one day after the 36th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.
"For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us," Obama said in a statement released from the White House. "I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate."
He said the ban was unnecessarily broad and undermined family planning in developing countries.
"In the coming weeks, my administration will initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world," the president said.
The Bush policy banned U.S. taxpayer money, usually in the form of U.S. Agency for International Development funds, from going to international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide information, counseling or referrals about abortion. It is also known as the "global gag rule," because it prohibits taxpayer funding for groups that lobby to legalize abortion or promote it as a family planning method.
The move was not a surprise as both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will oversee foreign aid, had promised to do away with the gag rule during the presidential campaign. Clinton is to visit the U.S. Agency for International Development, through which much U.S. foreign aid is disbursed, later on Friday.
Reversing Bush policies
Obama has spent his first days in office systematically reversing Bush administration policies on issues ranging from foreign policy to government operations. But, save for ending the ban, Obama has largely refrained from wading into ideological issues, perhaps to avoid being tagged a traditional partisan from the outset after his campaign promises to change "business as usual" in the often partisan-gridlocked capital.
Rather, Obama has chosen to focus initially on issues in which there is consensus across the political spectrum and support from the public, such as closing the prison camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to making government documents more accessible.
In a move related to the lifting of the abortion ban, Obama also is expected to restore funding to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) at his earliest opportunity, probably in the next budget. Both he and Clinton made this a campaign issue.
The Bush administration had barred U.S. money from going to the fund, contending that work in China supported a Chinese family planning policy of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization. UNFPA has vehemently denied that it does.
Organizations that had pressed Obama to make the abortion-ban change were jubilant.
"Women's health has been severely impacted by the cutoff of assistance. President Obama's actions will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, abortions and women dying from high-risk pregnancies because they don't have access to family planning," said Tod Preston, a spokesman for Population Action International, an advocacy group.
Anti-abortion groups criticized the move.
"President Obama not long ago told the American people that he would support policies to reduce abortions, but today he is effectively guaranteeing more abortions by funding groups that promote abortion as a method of population control," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.