President Obama kept a low profile as he fulfilled a campaign promise by reversing President Bush’s policy barring U.S. aid to international organizations which provide abortions or advise women on how to get them.
President Obama kept a low profile on Friday as he fulfilled a campaign promise by reversing President Bush’s policy barring U.S. aid to international organizations which provide abortions or advise women on how to get them.
However, the new president also extended an olive branch to anti-abortion groups and expressed a desire to end what he called a “stale and fruitless debate.”
“It is time that we end the politicization of this issue,” Obama said in a written statement which accompanied an official presidential memorandum canceling Bush’s abortion-related restrictions on American aid money, referred to by critics as the “global gag rule.” The new president promised “a fresh conversation on family planning” and said his aides would “reach out to those on all sides of this issue to achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies.”
The policy towards U.S. funding to certain family planning groups has flipped back and forth as Republicans and Democrats traded control of the White House since the ban was first announced by President Reagan’s administration in 1984 in connection with a United Nations conference in Mexico City. The restrictions, which came to be known as the “Mexico City language,” stayed in place through the remainder of Reagan’s presidency and through the administration of President George H.W. Bush. The ban was dropped by President Clinton when he entered office in 1993 and reinstated by President Bush in 2001.
Obama also said he would work with Congress to restore American government support for the United Nations Population Fund, which has been blocked from receiving funds by a legal provision that bars the federal government from funding organizations which support or promote coerced abortion. The State Department found in 2002 that the U.N. agency was ineligible for funding because of its involvement with the Chinese government's enforcement of its one-child policy, which often leads to abortions.
Advocates for the U.N. agency disputed that finding. "The statements the Bush administration made and its actions with respect to UNFPA were purely for political purposes and not based on the facts," said the president of Americans for UNFPA, Anika Rahman. UNFPA is seeking $60 million from the U.S. in the current fiscal year
As expected, Obama’s action rescinding the Mexico City language drew a flurry of supportive statements from abortion rights and family planning groups, and a slew of sharply critical comments from abortion rights opponents.
However, there were also indications Obama and his advisers sought to minimize press attention to the polarizing issue and may have tried to avoid antagonizing anti-abortion activists. The administration skipped the chance to issue the directive on Thursday, the 36th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, as thousands of abortion opponents gathered in Washington for an annual rally.
Instead, Obama opted to act late on a Friday afternoon, a time often used to minimize news coverage of an announcement or disclosure. While aides confirmed the signing at about 4 p.m., the text of the directive was not released until about 7 p.m. There were also signs that White House aides had difficulty in deciding whether or not to permit reporters and photographers to witness Obama actually signing the abortion-related directive.
At mid-afternoon Friday, pool photographers, camera crews and reporters were told to assemble for an event believed to be the signing. They spent about an hour waiting in the White House press briefing room before being dismissed without seeing Obama or any official event.
In past administrations, signings of presidential directives on sensitive issues were usually covered by only still photographers or a single official White House photographer. However, a flap over the omission of TV crews and press photographers from a partial pool that covered Obama’s unusual re-swearing-in Wednesday evening may have left White House press aides skittish about taking in only the still photographers or about asking news outlets to rely on only a handout photo.
Asked about the fruitless summoning and dismissal of the journalists Friday, White House spokesman Bill Burton said, “There was just a logistical misunderstanding on the part of the press office.”