WASHINGTON — Stepping quickly into an abortion debate he largely avoided as a candidate, President Obama on Friday overturned a controversial ban on U.S. support to international aid groups that provide abortion services around the world.
Reversing the so-called global gag rule was a top priority of abortion rights supporters, who have long criticized the regulation as imperiling women's health, particularly in developing nations.
The new president cast his decision as a breakthrough in the decades-long debate over the federal government's involvement in family planning.
"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 announcing his action. "It is time that we end the politicization of this issue.
"I have directed my staff to reach out to those on all sides of this issue to achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies," he said. "They will also work to promote safe motherhood, reduce maternal and infant mortality rates and increase educational and economic opportunities for women and girls."
Obama also announced he would release federal funding for the United Nations Population Fund as soon as Congress makes it available, ensuring renewed U.S. support for the U.N. family planning agency.
Abortion opponents immediately condemned the moves, criticizing them as the first part of what one called Obama's "sweeping abortion agenda."
President Reagan instituted the rule, also known as the "Mexico City policy," in 1984, stating that the U.S. government would not contribute to groups that "perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations."
The result, critics said, was that nongovernmental organizations working in the developing world could not refer women to safe abortion providers or even conduct family planning education campaigns that discussed the procedure.
President Clinton rescinded the rule shortly after taking office in 1993. Eight years later, President Bush reinstituted it, saying that taxpayer funds should not be used to promote abortions.
Obama worked to defuse abortion as a political issue during the presidential campaign, stressing his commitment to reducing the number of abortions as he maintained his commitment to protecting abortion rights.
And at least for a time, abortion, like other social issues, seemed to recede from the spotlight as the worsening economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated the national debate.
The country's abortion rate is at its lowest level since 1974, according to a report last year by the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based research group.
Obama appeared intent on downplaying his move Friday, announcing it late in the afternoon with considerably less fanfare than his earlier pronouncement about closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But the move -- coming a day after the 36th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion -- appeared to do little to shift the tone of the debate over reproductive rights.
"President Obama campaigned on finding 'common ground' on abortion policy. But his first presidential decision to roll back the common-sense Mexico City policy signals to American taxpayers that the abortion bailout has begun," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List.
On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers also criticized the move.
"In these historic and challenging times, divisive actions like the reversal of the Mexico City policy are not in America's best interest," said Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House and a rising star in the party. "I am saddened by this decision and the lives that will be lost because of it."
Abortion rights groups and their supporters in Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), in turn praised the president for taking swift action.
"Women throughout the world can breathe a sigh of relief and gain access to a full range of family planning services," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who tried unsuccessfully to force the Bush administration to rescind the rule.
Abortion rights groups also hope the Obama administration will take other steps to restore federal support for family planning programs that many say withered under eight years of GOP control of the White House.