WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday lifted restrictions on U.S. government funding for groups that provide abortion services or counseling abroad, reversing a policy of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush.
The Democratic president’s decision was a victory for advocates of abortion rights on an issue that in recent years has become a tit-for-tat policy change each time the White House shifts from one party to the other.
When the ban was in place, no U.S. government funding for family planning services could be given to clinics or groups that offered abortion services or counseling in other countries, even if the funds for those activities came from non-U.S. government sources.
“For the past eight years, (the restrictions) have undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning in developing countries,” Obama said in a statement.
“It is right for us to rescind this policy and restore critical efforts to protect and empower women and promote global economic development.”
In contrast to his executive order to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which he signed in a ceremony before journalists, the president issued this order quietly and the White House released a statement at 7 p.m. EST/2400 GMT.
The decision has been called the Mexico City Policy because it was unveiled at a United Nations conference there in 1984 and became one of the centerpiece social positions of the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan, a Republican.
Critics call it the “gag rule” because it cuts funds to groups that advocate lifting abortion restrictions, which critics say means it blocks free speech. They say it reduced healthcare for some of the world’s poorest women.
Planned Parenthood, a health care provider and advocacy group for abortion rights, welcomed the move in a statement.
“No longer will health care providers be forced to choose between receiving family planning funding and restricting the health care services they provide to women,” it said.
Anti-abortion activists criticized Obama.
“When we wake up every morning to a deepening financial crisis, it is an insult to the American people to bail out the abortion industry,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life.
“Planned Parenthood is a billion-dollar company and they do not need additional resources to burden the American taxpayer.”
Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, rescinded the rule when he took office in January 1993 and his successor, Republican George W. Bush, reinstated it in January 2001.
Obama said he wanted to depoliticize the topic and directed his staff to reach out to people on both sides to work on reducing unintended pregnancies.
He also promised to work with Congress to resume funding to the U.N. Population Fund.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell expressed disapproval. “I have long supported the Mexico City Policy and believe this administration’s decision to be counter to our nation’s interests,” he said in a statement.
The United States spends more than $400 million on overseas family planning assistance each year.
Critics of the funding ban say the anti-abortion restrictions have resulted in huge drops for funding worldwide to organizations that provide family-planning services and basic healthcare. They say this means many women are deprived of contraception and other health services in poor countries, leading to back-alley abortions and deaths.
The Center for Reproductive Rights says, for example, that in Ethiopia and Lesotho, some nongovernmental organizations are no longer able to offer comprehensive and integrated healthcare services to patients suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Abortion rights opponents and groups who support the Mexico City Policy dispute the view that it has led to an increase of illegal abortions or deaths overseas.
Unlike Clinton and Bush, Obama did not act on the rule on the January 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that made abortions legal throughout the United States.
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard