Bush Acts on Abortion 'Gag Rule'

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President Bush confirmed at a White House lunch for GOP congressional leaders Monday that as one of his first acts as president he will reinstate the so-called global gag rule, which blocks U.S. funds being given to international family-planning groups that offer abortion and abortion counseling. "Yes, I will," Bush told reporters who asked if he would issue an executive order. When can it be expected? "Soon," Bush replied. The announcement was expected later in the day, which is the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Bush's decision was reported earlier Monday by the Associated Press. TIME.COM first outlined Bush's plan last Friday, and details of Secretary of State Colin Powell's options memo to the White House are discussed in this week's edition of TIME magazine.

In a statement read at noon Monday to anti-abortion protesters at their annual march on the Capitol, Bush vowed to protect "every person at every stage and season of life." Read by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, a leader of the anti-abortion movement, the statement quoted Bush as saying: "The promises of our Declaration of Independence are not just for the strong, the independent or the healthy. They are for everyone, including unborn children.... We share a great goal, to work toward a day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law... to build a culture of life, affirming that every person at every stage and season of life, is created equal in God's image."

Pro-choice members of Congress and leaders of family planning organizations reacted with predictable fury. "President Bush is starting out on a very bad foot," said New York House Democrat Carolyn Maloney. "Every day, at least 1,600 women and girls die from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Bush's decision to impose a gag rule is a pure legislative ambush, and the victims of this ambush are the world's poorest women and girls." And Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, was equally vociferous: "It is evidence of the hard-line agenda on reproductive health and rights that the Bush administration will undoubtedly take," she told TIME. "It's evidence also that they feel the need to pay off the hard-line, anti-choice extremists who supported them in the election."

A coalition of family planning organizations planned a press conference in New York Monday afternoon to denounce Bush's decision. Several members of Congress plan to announce Tuesday that they will introduce legislation to override's Bush's order.

The global gag rule bars foreign governments and multilateral organizations from receiving U.S. family planning funds if they provide abortion services or engage in any lobbying on abortion issues. It prevents organizations, such as women's health clinics and AIDS awareness groups, from discussing abortion in any form. Many pro-choice activists insist the issue is one of free speech as well as funding. The policy, originally called the Mexico City provision, was named for a population conference in 1984 where the U.S. first outlined what would become policy in both the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations. Bill Clinton lifted the ban in January 1993 in one of his first acts as president.

In the fall of 1999, pro-life supporters in Congress were successful in reinstating the gag rule by attaching it to the foreign appropriations bill. It was the first time Congress acted to make such restrictions law, not simply a ruling issued by the Executive Branch. Congress attached the bill as a rider to legislation authorizing payment of U.N. arrears. Much to the delight of anti-abortion activists, Clinton felt compelled to accept it. Just last October, the Clinton administration lifted the gag rule, which affects approximately 430 organizations in more than 50 nations. But in a tight presidential campaign with Senate Republicans hoping Bush would prevail, Congress attached a compromise to the ruling, effectively deferring family planning funds from flowing until February 15, 2001.

Bush's decision to ignite the emotionally charged issue of abortion as one of his first acts as president is sure to delight conservatives, but it raises questions about his repeated promise to unite Democrats and Republicans. Anti-abortion activists hope that he will go even further by putting new restrictions on RU-486, the abortion pill authorized last year by the Food and Drug Administration. Their ultimate goal is for Bush to appoint new Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.