RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Today marks the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. By tradition, opponents of abortion march from the Washington Monument to the Supreme Court in protest. And there's another tradition that's been developing; it involves an incoming president making some policy changes on this issue. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER: It's both a blessing and a curse that the Roe anniversary comes just two days after Inauguration Day. On the one hand, it's a chance for a new president to throw a bone to some of his or her most devoted followers. On the other, it shines a spotlight on one of the most divisive issues in all of American politics just 48 hours into a brand new administration. The most frequent alteration on the Roe anniversary is the so-called Mexico City policy, known to its detractors as the global gag rule. It bans federal funding for international family-planning programs that perform or promote abortion. Colorado Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette says the policy simply makes no sense.
Representative DIANA DEGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): By the United States restricting women's rights to reproductive planning internationally, it really destroys their lives, because they can't control the size of their family. That affects their use of resources and food and child nutrition and so many other things.
ROVNER: But Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says the policy doesn't actually reduce U.S. aid for international family planning and is perfectly reasonable.
Mr. RICHARD DOERFLINGER (Associate Director, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): Because you can't reduce abortions by promoting abortions. Let's keep it centered on family planning. And an organization that takes the money to do family planning in developing nations will agree not to perform and promote abortion, and the vast majority of organizations have been able to sign that pledge.
ROVNER: The Mexico City policy has been something of a political football since it was first instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. President Bill Clinton rescinded it on the Roe anniversary two days after he became president in 1993. Then President George W. Bush reinstituted it on the Roe anniversary just after he took office in 2001. President Obama's expected elimination of the policy will be more than merely symbolic, though, says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Ms. CECILE RICHARDS (President, Planned Parenthood Federation of America): It is an administration that's going to focus on women's health and women's health needs. And it's been eight long years in the wilderness.
ROVNER: Under a pro-choice President Obama, Doerflinger concedes that pro-life forces will now find themselves playing defense.
Mr. DOERFLINGER: And there is a lot to defend, but most of what is there to defend is really very modest but effective laws that a vast majority of Americans support and see as commonsense things, things like parental involvement when an under-aged daughter seeks an abortion, not forcing taxpayers to fund abortions, allowing conscience rights for doctors and nurses who are morally opposed to abortion, allowing them to refrain.
ROVNER: The last is a reference to a last-minute Bush administration regulation abortion-rights backers are working to see rescinded. Still, Congresswoman DeGette says that with President Bush out of office and Democrats in control of Congress, perhaps the tone of the debate could be softened.
Rep. DEGETTE: The problem was that the religious right decided to talk about the far edges of the abortion debate, the most outrageous and egregious examples, when, in fact, we can find common ground just by promoting robust pregnancy-prevention programs. That's a message that almost everybody, except for the most extreme voters, can agree with.
ROVNER: But both sides have talked about finding common ground for many years now. So far, they just haven't been able to find very much. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.