AFP- President Barack Obama on Friday overturned what he described as an "unwarranted" eight-year ban on US government funding for family-planning groups which carry out or facilitate abortions overseas.
Shortly after he signed an executive order cancelling the restrictions, on the third full day of his presidency, Obama said in a statement the ban had "undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning in developing countries," and that the issue had become too politicized.
The so-called "global gag rule" cut off US funding to overseas family planning clinics which provide any abortion services whatsoever, from the operation itself to counseling, referrals or post-abortion services.
First introduced by Republican president Ronald Reagan in 1984, it has been repeatedly overturned by Democratic administrations and reintroduced by the Republicans.
Obama's action reversed the orders of president George W. Bush, who when he came into office in 2001 immediately froze funds to many family planning groups working overseas.
"It is clear that the provisions ... are unnecessarily broad and unwarranted under current law," Obama said.
For too long, he added, the ban "has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us."
The order won Obama praise from Democratic lawmakers, family planning and women's rights groups, and drew angry condemnation from pro-life organizations and Republicans.
With the restrictions lifted, more "healthcare entitities can receive US funds for family planning and reach a bigger pool of women," Tait Sye, a spokesman for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America told AFP.
Kim Gandy, head of the National Organization of Women, said Obama had reversed a policy that "has forced international family planning organizations to make an impossible choice between providing comprehensive reproductive health care and receiving funds that enable them to help women in need."
"Women around the world have died as a result of this heartless policy," she said.
According to Population Action International (PAI), the gag rule resulted in Nepal's largest family planning provider losing two-thirds of its total supply of contraceptives and saw the number of women in Ghana who sought care for complications after an abortion soar after contraceptive supplies were cut off to a large clinic there.
Women in developing countries, where access to contraception is poor, often turn to abortion as a means of birth control, a World Bank report has said.
Tod Preston, vice president of PAI, said lifting the gag rule was "an important step to save women’s lives around the world.
"Family planning should not be a political issue; it’s about basic health care and well-being for women and children," he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Obama's repeal of the ban was "a welcomed and important step" that would help ensure women and children have full access to health information and services.
Democratic Senator John Kerry applauded Obama for sending "a powerful signal around the world that the United States is once again back in the business of good public policy, and ideology no longer blunts our ability to save lives around the globe."
More than 250 health and human rights organizations from around the world sent Obama a letter, thanking him for ending a policy "which has contributed to the deaths and injuries of countless women and girls."
Anti-abortion groups were up in arms and vowed to fight the move.
"We were prepared for this and we will work very hard in Congress to see what we can do to get this overturned," Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, told AFP.
"I think it's a horrible tactic to take toward third world countries if the best we can do for them is provide organizations with the money needed to perform abortions on their children," she said.
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, said lifting the gag rule was tantamount to "exporting a culture of death," and House Republican Whip Eric Cantor said he was "saddened by this decision and the lives that will be lost because of it."
Abortion is a hot-button issue in the United States, pitting pro-life conservative groups against more liberal, pro-choice Americans who back a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
A 1973 decision by the Supreme Court legalized abortion and gave the United States some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the world.