Thursday marks the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. It's also likely to mark the day President Barack Obama will reverse at least a few of the anti-abortion policies of George W. Bush.
By now, it's become something of a tradition.
In 2001, just two days after he took office, Bush used the Roe anniversary to issue executive orders reversing some of the abortion rights policies of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, just as Clinton had used his first Roe anniversary, in 1993, to override some of the anti-abortion policies of President George H.W. Bush.
Eyes On The 'Mexico City Policy'
The most likely candidate for action is the so-called "Mexico City policy," known by its detractors as the "global gag rule." It prohibits U.S. foreign aid assistance to international family planning groups that "perform or promote" abortion.
The policy, named for the conference at which it was drafted in 1984, was first instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984; rescinded by President Clinton on Jan. 22, 1993; then reinstituted by President George W. Bush on Jan. 22, 2001.
Abortion-rights supporters say the change would be more than symbolic.
"It would be huge," says Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus. "By the U.S. restricting women's rights to reproductive planning internationally, it really destroys their lives. Because they can't control the size of their family, that affects their use of resources and food and child nutrition and so many other things. The way to increase the stability in Third World countries, frankly, is for sensible family planning."
But Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says the Mexico City policy hasn't reduced U.S. aid for family planning by a single dime — it has simply redirected it to groups that forswear abortion-related activities.
"You can't reduce abortions by promoting abortions," Doerflinger says. "Let's keep it centered on family planning. And an organization that takes the money to do family planning in developing nations will agree not to perform and promote abortion as a family-planning method — and the vast majority of organizations have been able to sign that pledge."
One that has not is the largest international family-planning group, the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says she's hopeful early action by President Obama on the Mexico City policy — and possibly restoration of funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which has been blocked by disagreements over its activities in China — will signal a new direction.
"I think this means that it is an administration that's going to focus on women's health and women's health needs," Richards says. "And it's been eight long years in the wilderness. So, I think for women in this country and women around the world, this is a president and administration that takes their health care needs seriously."
A Possible Thaw
But some longtime participants in the abortion debate think there could be a thawing in the abortion wars.
"I think people are looking for solutions," says Nancy Keenan of NARAL. "I think most people agree that you have to make birth control available, that you should invest in family planning."
Doerflinger of the Catholic Bishops Conference says birth control can get divisive if it forces Catholic institutions to provide artificial contraceptives. But he agrees that there is some common ground in the debate.
"I think most Americans do not like abortion. They would like to see fewer abortions," he says. "And one thing I would hope we could agree on is that if a woman does find herself pregnant, that we can help make sure that she is not pushed toward abortion by the fact that no one said we're supporting another way."
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