Shhh. Obama Repeals the Abortion Gag Rule, Very Quietly

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Denis Farrell / AP

A sonogram is performed on a pregnant patient at a U.S.-funded clinic in White River Junction, South Africa

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Planned Parenthood of Zambia, for example, has lost nearly a quarter of its funding and almost 40% of its staff because of the policy. The group still provides abortions, but the activities that have been affected by the loss of that aid are more diverse: pre- and postnatal care, early child immunizations, malaria screenings and tests for cervical cancer. The lack of funding for contraception in some African countries actually became such an obstacle to preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS that Bush exempted PEPFAR, his global AIDS initiative, from the Mexico City restrictions. Opponents of the policy also argue that it actually increases abortion rates because the rate of unintended pregnancy rises when access to contraception is limited.

By choosing to take action on the Mexico City policy just two days into their first Administrations, both Clinton and Bush ended up igniting culture wars before they'd even had a chance to find their way around the office. Clinton entered the White House having tempered the skepticism of many pro-life voters with his insistence that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." But his decision to repeal the Mexico City ban as one of his first acts in office led many to wonder if the slogan was just empty words. With Bush, his reinstatement of the ban and accompanying explanation signaled from the get-go that "compassionate conservatism" was still very much conservative. (Read "McCain and Obama on Abortion.")

Obama sought to avoid creating such political theater by waiting to issue his repeal of the policy until the annual face-off between pro-life and pro-choice advocates on Jan. 22 was over and by doing it out of sight of the cameras. He observed the anniversary of Roe v. Wade by issuing a statement reaffirming his support for a woman's right to choose but also appealing — as he did throughout the presidential campaign — for common-ground approaches to abortion policy: "We are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make." (Read "The Grass-Roots Abortion War.")

But the President who so carefully cultivates a postpartisan image will not be able to entirely avoid pressure from allies to demonstrate a concrete commitment to changing the cycle of whipsaw abortion policy that takes place whenever a new President occupies the White House. Already he has been lobbied by pro-life religious progressives who urged him to wait a few weeks before issuing the Executive Order. The progressive group Catholics United participated in Thursday's March for Life, carrying a banner that read "Congress Reduce Abortion Now." The shifting ground in the abortion debates means he has more allies willing to work with him on abortion-reduction strategies such as efforts to expand access to contraceptives and provide economic supports for pregnant women. But it also means he has more supporters who expect their pro-life views to be heard. They'll have to decide if what they saw today was a mixed message — or a step toward common ground.

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