WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signed a memorandum on Friday that ends a prohibition on supplying federal family planning funds and contraceptives to international aid groups that provide abortions, abortion referrals or abortion counseling.
Obama's move came a day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights Supreme Court ruling of 1973, and an annual march in Washington to protest the decision. Abortion opponents were critical of Obama's order, while abortion rights groups said it could help prevent millions of unintended pregnancies worldwide and save thousands of women's lives each year.
"For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us," Obama said in a statement issued along with the memorandum he signed. "I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate."
He said he'd ask his administration to initiate a "fresh conversation" on family planning, and to seek common ground with abortion opponents.
"I have directed my staff to reach out to those on all sides of this issue to achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies," Obama said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Obama's move "welcome news to the poorest women and families in the world."
Conservatives weren't as receptive. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, issued a statement calling Obama's quick move on the family planning issue "divisive."
Obama's order followed a series of economic and national security meetings on Friday, as well as calls to several world leaders and a morning event where Obama emphasized his desire for bipartisan solutions to the economic crisis. Obama was to spend at least part of Saturday in another White House meeting on the economy, the details of which weren't immediately released.
Obama met on Friday morning at the White House with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, including Cantor, to discuss the $825-billion-plus economic stimulus package they hope to put together by mid-February. Republicans want more tax cuts and less spending, and said Obama took an interest in some of their proposals.
He's to visit congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill early next week, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
At Friday's meeting with congressional leaders, Obama said, "I recognize that there are still some differences around the table" and added, "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."
On another front, in a telephone call to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Obama asked for his support to help stop weapons smuggling to Hamas in Gaza, Gibbs said. Obama also spoke by phone with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met privately with the National Security Council and also got a daily economic briefing. Obama had a separate private meeting with his nominee for Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who'll have a Senate confirmation vote on Monday afternoon.
Family planning advocates and anti-abortion groups had long anticipated Obama's action on the abortion-related policy that critics call the global gag rule.
Supporters refer to it as the Mexico City policy for the location of the conference where President Ronald Reagan announced it in 1984.
It's been a political football ever since. President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, kept it in place. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, lifted it. President George W. Bush, a Republican, reimposed it.
Obama, a Democrat, supports abortion rights but calls the procedure "tragic" and promotes broader access to contraception.
His lifting of the prohibition doesn't open up federal funding for abortions, because a federal prohibition on foreign assistance for most abortions remains in place, said James Salt, the organizing director of Catholics United, which nonetheless opposed Obama's lifting of the prohibition.
Some religious leaders issued more incendiary reactions. Catholic League president Bill Donohue chided "some Catholics salivating for a job in his administration" for supporting Obama and said, "We hope every Catholic who is truly pro-life gets it."
Planned Parenthood praised Obama, saying that 19 million women worldwide have unsafe abortions each year, and 68,000 die of complications.
Population Action International said the previous prohibition had cut off aid in 29 countries, many in Africa. Among examples the group cited was a large provider in Nepal that lost two-thirds of its contraceptive supply, and a large provider in Ghana that cut its staff in half and saw a spike in women seeking care for post-abortion complications.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY