President Obama called for overturning a decade-old ban on publicly funded abortions in the District as part of his budget proposal Thursday, but did not overturn the national ban on federal funding, thus angering advocacy groups on both sides of the volatile issue.
Under his proposal, the District for the first time in more than a decade would be allowed to pay for abortions with the money it raises from its own taxpayers.
“This is just the most recent in a long line of actions by President Obama to placate the abortion industry actions that fail to match his words with regard to abortion policy,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life women’s group.
Still, Mr. Obama’s budget would leave in place the ban on using federal taxpayer money to pay for most abortions in the District or anywhere else in the nation a proposal pro-choice groups had hoped he would make in his first budget submission.
“For millions of women, federal programs are their only means of getting health care,” said Center for Reproductive Rights President Nancy Northup. “Abortion is the only medically necessary health service excluded from Medicaid coverage. Failure to provide that service a service that only women need is discrimination.”
The abortion language is one of a host of tough policy decisions Mr. Obama had to face as he released details of his $3.5 trillion budget for fiscal 2010. Among other issues, he proposes to cut funding for abstinence-only education programs, to change plans for how the U.S. will handle nuclear waste, and to include no money for further construction on the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
Seeking to regain credibility on controlling spending, Mr. Obama also unveiled $17 billion in spending cuts though many of his proposed cuts are unlikely to survive the congressional process.
“At this moment, at this difficult time for our nation, we can’t accept business as usual,” Mr. Obama said.
The D.C. abortion language is a departure from past restrictions imposed by Congress in its constitutional role overseeing the District; states are freer to do as they will with their taxpayer money, including possibly funding abortions. The existing law over the District bars any funds from being spent on abortions in the District, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother’s life.
“It’s bringing our funding in line with the other states, the way they’ve been funded previously,” said Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Health. “He removed the restrictions for local dollars.”
The White House said that was the intent.
“As a general rule, the president believes that states and localities should have the freedom to make this kind of funding decision at the local level,” said spokesman Reid Cherlin.
But that change, like all the other proposals in Mr. Obama’s budget, will have to be approved by Congress, and pro-life groups promised a fight.
“Any member of Congress who votes for a bill that contains the White House proposal is, in reality, voting for tax-funded abortion on demand with congressionally appropriated funds,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director with the National Right to Life Committee.
The prohibition on local dollars was enacted in 1988 during the Reagan presidency, scrapped in 1993 during the first year of the Clinton administration, and reinstated in 1995 when Republicans gained control of Congress.
During the next few years, officials continued spending city money to pay for abortions, but said they did not realize they were violating the law.
Meanwhile, pro-choice groups said they had hoped Mr. Obama would go further in ending nationwide restrictions on federal spending for abortion, such as the Hyde Amendment, named for former Rep. Henry Hyde, that generally prohibits federal funding for abortions.
Pro-choice advocates said President Clinton, in his budget submissions, used to call for an end to the policy, although the Republican-controlled Congress never went along.
Pro-choice groups said they will now look to the Democratic majorities in Congress to overrule Mr. Obama and end the federal restrictions.
A statement from Ms. Northup’s group said it was “calling on Congress to step up and eliminate all restrictions on abortion funding, which would demonstrate much needed U.S. leadership and commitment to the human rights principles at the heart of reproductive rights.”
Mr. Obama ran as a pro-choice candidate but said he would like to find ways to reduce the number of abortions. At a press conference marking 100 days in office last week he repeated his commitment to that goal, and also said the Freedom of Choice Act, which would remove state restrictions on abortion, is “not my highest legislative priority.”
“I believe that women should have the right to choose, but I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that’s where I’m going to focus,” he said.
He also drew praise from pro-choice groups for his move to cut abstinence-only education programs. They pointed to studies showing the abstinence programs were not effective in reducing pregnancy rates.
But LeAnna Benn, one of the pioneers of abstinence education, said cutting the programs “silence[s] the voice of abstinence for millions of teens” and will put many more people out of work across the country.
Ironically, Mrs. Benn, founder of Teen-Aid in Spokane, Wash., added, “These cuts come on the National Day of Prayer.”
Cheryl Wetzstein and Jon Ward contributed to this report.