WASHINGTON — With a stroke of a pen, President Clinton marked the 20th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade Friday by dismantling a series of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Administration abortion restrictions, only hours after tens of thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators rallied across the street from the White House.
"Our vision should be of an America where abortion is safe and legal but rare," Clinton said, as, on his third day in office, he fulfilled a campaign promise to abortion rights supporters and medical research organizations.
By executive order, Clinton:
* Ended a five-year ban on fetal tissue research, which scientists believe holds the possibility of benefiting patients with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, Huntington's disease, spinal cord injuries and other conditions.
* Overturned the so-called gag rule that restricted abortion counseling at 4,000 federally funded family planning clinics nationwide.
* Revoked prohibitions on the importation of RU486--known as the French "abortion pill"--for personal use, if the Food and Drug Administration determines that there is no justification for the prohibitions.
* Allowed abortions at U.S. military hospitals overseas, if they are paid for privately.
* Reversed a 1984 order which prevented the United States from providing foreign aid to overseas organizations that perform or promote abortion.
Abortion rights advocates said Clinton's actions were nothing short of historic.
"In one day, no President has ever done more to affirm the right of women to make personal reproductive choices," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), author of legislation, vetoed last year by Bush, that would have overturned the fetal tissue research ban.
His sentiments were echoed by Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, who said the steps "signal a dramatic and decisive shift in White House policy on a woman's freedom to choose."
"Today's executive orders mark a triumphant beginning for President Clinton, who has swiftly and decisively fulfilled his vow to revoke dangerous Bush/Reagan anti-choice policies," she said. But Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee, expressed the deep disappointment of the anti-abortion movement. "President Clinton insults--on the day he declared "Fellowship Day"--the millions of pro-life Americans, whose views he recently claimed to respect," she said.
Existing law prohibits the direct use of federal funds for abortion procedures, except to save the life of the woman. Clinton's orders apparently do not violate those statutes, although they loosen previous interpretations of it.
His actions came as abortion opponents staged their annual march to mark the anniversary of the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that established abortion as a right--one that is exercised by an estimated 1.6 million U.S. women a year.
Police estimated that 75,000 people, 5,000 more than last year, gathered for a pre-march rally across the street from the South Lawn. From there, they marched to the building that houses the Supreme Court.
In years past, Bush spoke to the group via an electronic hookup. This time, however, there was no encouragement from the White House.
For Marty Pressau, that was reason enough to stand on the muddy Ellipse, holding a placard displaying a graphic color photograph of a dismembered fetus. Although the 35-year-old bank auditor had participated in protests in Pittsburgh, Pa., it was the first time he had joined the national march in Washington.
"People are angry, very angry," he said.
Carl Mohme, a 28-year-old computer programmer standing about 100 yards away, said he had been a member of one of 28 busloads of demonstrators to make the journey from St. Louis. "It is disappointing this year not to have a pro-life President, no doubt about it," Mohme said. "We don't have any false illusions about President Clinton, but it's important that he hear us."
In a statement, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities, said it was "particularly lamentable" that Clinton chose the day of the march to sign the executive orders.
"Today's actions will galvanize those Americans, and countless others, to work even more vigorously for the day when all members of the human family are invited to enjoy life, fellowship and hope," said Mahony, who participated in the march.
Mahony said Clinton had vowed during the campaign to reduce abortions, saying that they should be safe, legal and rare.
"But surely you cannot reduce abortion by promoting abortion as just another method of birth control," the Cardinal said. "You cannot reduce abortion by fueling a market for the tiny dead bodies of unborn children. You cannot reduce abortion by exporting abortion to the poor in the Third World."