- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

President Obama on Friday repealed a controversial Reagan-era measure that blocks funding to foreign aid groups that perform or promote abortions, joining the parade of presidents who have entered the abortion fray within days of taking office by instituting or rescinding the action known as the Mexico City policy.

Mr. Obama signed the executive order in the Oval Office one day after tens of thousands of Americans protested in front of the White House against Roe v. Wade on the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Mr. Obama said the policy had “undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning in developing countries,” and vowed to find common ground with his pro-life adversaries.

“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. I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate,” Mr. Obama said.

Pro-choice advocates said Mr. Obama was making a conciliatory gesture toward pro-lifers by not signing the order on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, as did two of his predecessors. President Clinton rescinded the policy on Jan. 22, 1993, and President Bush reinstituted it on Jan. 22, 2001.

“In breaking the symbolic cycle, President Obama showed respect for both sides in the historically polarized abortion debate, and called for both a new conversation and a new common ground,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a progressive Christian group.

But Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins said Mr. Obama’s decision was a contradiction of the values espoused by the president Thursday in repealing “enhanced interrogation techniques” of suspected terrorists that some believe to be torture.

“While he bans torture on terrorists he’s now forcing taxpayers to export abortions, a procedure that destroys the lives of unborn children,” Mr. Perkins said.

After several years on the back burner of the cultural conversation, abortion has been one of several issues to come to the fore in the early days of the Obama administration.

Mr. Obama’s 2007 promise to sign the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would repeal all state and local restrictions on abortion — such as parental notification laws and measures allowing physicians to deny abortions based on their faith — has aroused widespread concern among evangelical and Catholic voters in particular.

Mr. Obama came under fire Thursday from congressional Republicans on the issue.

“Too much is at stake for this divisive and destructive legislation to move forward and life-saving laws to be rolled back,” read a letter from House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and 104 other House Republicans.

But even pro-choice advocates such as Ms. Laser said that FOCA “has zero chance of moving and passing.”

A spokesman for Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who has introduced FOCA in the past, said he intends to introduce the bill again this year, but did not know when that would be done.

In applauding the Mexico City decision, progressive political groups adopted the language of pro-life groups and argued that pro-choice policies do the best job of protecting human life.

Rachel Laser, of Third Way, said Mr. Obama’s decision was “a life-affirming, common ground policy that must transcend abortion politics.”

“This repeal is a life-affirming action because it will fight the spread of HIV/AIDS, prevent thousands of pregnancy-related deaths and illnesses, save the lives of countless children due to better-spaced pregnancies, and reduce the number of abortions worldwide,” she said.

Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the FRC, disagreed about the impact of blocking the policy named for the city in which it was first announced in 1984.

“That’s a bunch of hooey,” he said.

Although foreign aid money from organizations such as USAID cannot directly fund abortion under U.S. law, Mr. McClusky said, “the less that Planned Parenthood International needs to spend on things like receptionists and lobbyists, and instead has funded by U.S. taxpayers, it eases up more money for them to promote and perform abortions.”

Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life Action, derided the decision. “What a terrible way to begin a new administration — with an abortion business bailout that will exploit women in developing countries for political ends.”

Mr. Boehner on Friday also criticized the inclusion of increased funding for “family planning” in the economic stimulus package, during remarks to the press outside the White House following a meeting with Mr. Obama and congressional leaders.

And late Thursday, the Washington Blade, a paper focused on gay issues, reported that Mr. Obama will ask Mark Dybul, the coordinator of President Bush’s program to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, to resign.

Liberal groups, the Blade said, are concerned that Mr. Dybul, who is gay, would maintain Bush-era conditions that aid money go to groups who promote sexual abstinence as part of HIV prevention.

The White House itself appeared unsure of how to handle the public relations of the Mexico City executive order. Obama press staffers called for photographers and reporters to assemble for a photo opportunity as the president prepared to sign the order. After journalists waited for about 20 minutes, White House staff postponed the event by 15 minutes.

Several minutes later they abruptly canceled it.

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