WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama continued his march to reverse contentious Bush administration policies, ending the ban on giving federal money to international groups that perform abortions or provide information about it.
Obama signed a memorandum reversing the ban Friday afternoon, a day after he ordered the closures of the Guantanamo Bay prison and secret overseas CIA prisons, a review of military trials of terror suspects and a ban on torture.
The president’s focus on foreign policy comes even as he tries to deal with economic issues, Americans’ biggest concern at a time that the economy is struggling. On Friday, he met with Republican and
Democratic leaders at the White House to discuss legislative hurdles as he strives to get his massive economic stimulus plan enacted.
Liberal groups welcomed Obama‘s decision on the abortion funding ban, while abortion rights foes criticized the president. The abortion measure is a highly emotional one for many people, and Obama’s action came one day after the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.
Critics have long held that the rule unfairly discriminates against the world’s poor by denying US aid to groups that may be involved in abortion but also work on other aspects of reproductive health care and HIV/AIDS, leading to the closure of free and low-cost rural clinics.
Supporters of the ban say that the United States still provides millions of dollars in family planning assistance around the world and that the rule prevents anti-abortion taxpayers from backing something they believe is morally wrong.
The Bush policy reversed by Obama had banned US taxpayer money, usually in the form of Agency for International Development funds, from going to international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide information, counseling or referrals about abortion. The rule also had prohibited federal funding for groups that lobby to legalize abortion or promote it as a family planning method.
Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will oversee foreign aid, had promised to do away with the rule during the presidential campaign.
“This policy has made it more difficult for women around the world to gain access to essential information and healthcare services,” Clinton said in a statement. “Rather than limiting women’s ability to receive reproductive health services, we should be supporting programs that help women and their partners make decisions to ensure their health and the health of their families.”
Known as the “Mexico City policy,” the inflammatory ban has been reinstated and then reversed by Republican and Democratic presidents since Ronald Reagan established it in 1984.
In a move related to the lifting of the abortion rule, Obama also is expected to restore funding to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), probably in the next budget. Both he and Clinton had pledged to reverse a Bush administration determination that assistance to the organization violated US law.
The Bush administration had barred U.S. money from the fund, contending that its work in China supported a Chinese family planning policy of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization.
UNFPA has vehemently denied that it does.
Congress had appropriated $40 million to the UNFPA in the past budget year but the Bush administration had withheld the money as it had done every year since 2002.
Obama also is expected at some point to lift or ease restrictions on federal money for stem cell research, an issue that divides people along similar battle lines, but there was no word about any action on that Friday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has expressed interest in pressing legislation on stem cells in the first 100 days of the new Congress if the new administration doesn’t act.
Some scientists want broader use of embryonic stem cells than is allowed, hoping for new treatments for many diseases. Obtaining stem cells from four- or five-day-old embryos kills the embryos, and many opponents see that as taking life.
On his third full day in office, Obama reached out to key US allies, phoning British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Saudi King Abdullah, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. He also spoke with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Obama also turned his attention to the biggest worry of Americans – a recession expected to be the deepest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Speaking briefly before the meeting of legislative leaders at the White House, Obama urged bipartisan support for his stimulus package.
“I recognize that there are still some differences around the table and between the administration and members of Congress about particular details on the plan,” he said. “But I think what unifies this group is a recognition that we are experiencing an unprecedented, perhaps, economic crisis that has to be dealt with, and dealt with rapidly.”
Many Republican lawmakers believe the $825 billion package is too costly, and that too much of the spending is for long-range projects that will not boost the economy quickly. Obama and Democratic leaders promised to consider their recommendations.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, told reporters after the meeting that the Republicans “had some constructive suggestions, which we’ll review.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, said at the National Press Club that he believes the measure will clear Congress by the mid-February target date set by Obama.