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'Roe V. Wade' Anniversary Could Bring Policy Change

Thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators gathered during the March for Life in Washington, D.C., on the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 2006. (Getty Images)

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named for the conference at which it was drafted in 1984, was first instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984; rescinded by President Clinton on Jan. 22, 1993; then reinstituted by President George W. Bush on Jan. 22, 2001.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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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today marks the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. By tradition, opponents of abortion march from the Washington Monument to the Supreme Court in protest. And there's another tradition that's been developing; it involves an incoming president making some policy changes on this issue. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: It's both a blessing and a curse that the Roe anniversary comes just two days after Inauguration Day. On the one hand, it's a chance for a new president to throw a bone to some of his or her most devoted followers. On the other, it shines a spotlight on one of the most divisive issues in all of American politics just 48 hours into a brand new administration. The most frequent alteration on the Roe anniversary is the so-called Mexico City policy, known to its detractors as the global gag rule. It bans federal funding for international family-planning programs that perform or promote abortion. Colorado Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette says the policy simply makes no sense.

Representative DIANA DEGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): By the United States 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.

ROVNER: But Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says the policy doesn't actually reduce U.S. aid for international family planning and is perfectly reasonable.

Mr. RICHARD DOERFLINGER (Associate Director, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): Because you can't reduce abortions by promoting abortions. 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, and the vast majority of organizations have been able to sign that pledge.

ROVNER: The Mexico City policy has been something of a political football since it was first instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. President Bill Clinton rescinded it on the Roe anniversary two days after he became president in 1993. Then President George W. Bush reinstituted it on the Roe anniversary just after he took office in 2001. President Obama's expected elimination of the policy will be more than merely symbolic, though, says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Ms. CECILE RICHARDS (President, Planned Parenthood Federation of America): It is an administration that's going to focus on women's health and women's health needs. And it's been eight long years in the wilderness.

ROVNER: Under a pro-choice President Obama, Doerflinger concedes that pro-life forces will now find themselves playing defense.

Mr. DOERFLINGER: And there is a lot to defend, but most of what is there to defend is really very modest but effective laws that a vast majority of Americans support and see as commonsense things, things like parental involvement when an under-aged daughter seeks an abortion, not forcing taxpayers to fund abortions, allowing conscience rights for doctors and nurses who are morally opposed to abortion, allowing them to refrain.

ROVNER: The last is a reference to a last-minute Bush administration regulation abortion-rights backers are working to see rescinded. Still, Congresswoman DeGette says that with President Bush out of office and Democrats in control of Congress, perhaps the tone of the debate could be softened.

Rep. DEGETTE: The problem was that the religious right decided to talk about the far edges of the abortion debate, the most outrageous and egregious examples, when, in fact, we can find common ground just by promoting robust pregnancy-prevention programs. That's a message that almost everybody, except for the most extreme voters, can agree with.

ROVNER: But both sides have talked about finding common ground for many years now. So far, they just haven't been able to find very much. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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