Obama Ends Global Family Planning Restrictions

As promised, President Barack Obama has signed an executive order rescinding a policy that since 2001 has barred U.S. financial aid to international family planning groups that "perform or promote" abortion.

Unlike many of the executive orders the new president signed earlier in the week, this one was done without fanfare, late on a Friday afternoon, in an obvious effort to minimize attention. It was also done the day after the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

That set Obama apart, if only slightly, from some of his predecessors. Overturning what is known as the Mexico City policy — and to its detractors as the "global gag rule" — has become a tradition each time the White House has changed parties since the policy was first instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

President Bill Clinton used the occasion of the Roe anniversary in 1993 to overturn the policy, just two days after taking office. President George W. Bush used the anniversary to reinstate it on his second full day in office in 2001.

Aides said Obama preferred not to take the action on a day when abortion rights supporters and opponents were focused on their differences.

Indeed, in his statement that accompanied the executive order, Obama continued to try to seek a middle ground on one of the most contentious issues in all of American politics.

On the one hand, he defended his action, saying the provisions of the policy "are unnecessarily broad and unwarranted under current law, and for the past eight years, they have undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning in developing countries."

On the other hand, he decried the fact that international family planning "has been used as a political wedge issue" and pledged that 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."

Still, the order hardly went unnoticed. Abortion rights groups hailed it.

"For eight years under Bush, the global gag rule undermined the ability of providers everywhere to care for women according to best medical practice, and contributed to the deaths and injuries of an untold number of women who sought unsafe abortions when their community-based clinics and hospitals couldn't offer services, information or referrals," said Pablo Rodriguez, board chairman of the Association of Reproductive Health Care Professionals.

Abortion opponents were disappointed.

"One of President Obama's first acts is to rescind this vital government policy and reward pro-abortion groups," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. "This should serve as a bitter pill for those who campaigned for him, all the while proclaiming their belief in the cause of life and family."

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