In a sharp break with a decade of Republican rule, President Clinton yesterday overturned several restrictions on abortion 20 years to the day after the Supreme Court legalized the procedure.
As antiabortion demonstrators marched outside the White House, Clinton moved to reverse actions taken by former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush that had curtailed abortions. "Our vision should be of an America where abortion is safe and legal but rare," Clinton said.
At a televised Oval Office ceremony, Clinton:
Lifted restrictions on abortion counseling by anyone but physicians at federally funded clinics. The restrictions had come to be known as the "abortion gag rule."
Lifted restrictions on federally sponsored research on medical use of fetal tissue. Clinton said he was affected during his election campaign by families of victims of diabetes and Parkinson's disease who pleaded with him that such research held the possibility of cures.
Ended restrictions on United Nations population programs that had prevented use of U.S. funds for efforts that include information or counseling on abortion. The restrictions came to be called the "Mexico City Policy," for the city where it was announced, and Clinton said they had severely limited international family planning and population control.
Returned to overseas U.S. military hospitals the right to perform abortions as long as they are paid for with private, not federal, funds.
Ordered the government to review the Bush-era ban on the private importation of RU-486, the French abortion pill, and to end the ban unless there is a clear medical reason not to.
The actions, two days after Clinton took office, fulfill a campaign pledge to abortion rights groups although the president portrayed his moves as ones that return medical decisions to women and their counselors, not as ones that suggest he supports abortion.
The actions constitute virtually everything a president alone could do to remove restrictions that prevented women -- in many cases poor women -- from obtaining abortions. Clinton also supports changing the legislation that prevents the District of Columbia from funding abortions for poor women, but that move must be taken by Congress, which tried for several years but failed to override a Bush veto.
Clinton's actions were hailed by abortion rights activists, scientific researchers, population-control experts and a range of other groups that had fought limits for 12 years. They were attacked by the antiabortion movement as a capitulation to abortion rights "pressure groups" that want no restrictions whatever on abortion.
The statements in response to the actions exemplified the different planes on which the abortion argument is being waged: Neither politicians nor abortion rights activists want to be portrayed as backing abortion, only backing women's rights to choose appropriate medical care. Abortion opponents want the issue to be portrayed as one of opening the floodgates to abortion on demand.
Clinton's actions, said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, signal "the end of an era of medical McCarthyism" in which Republican ideology "interfered with the conduct of scientific research and medicine."
That group and others said they would mount a campaign to pressure Roussel-Uclaf, manufacturer of the abortion pill, to bring it into the United States. The firm, which is owned in part by the German petrochemical firm, Hoechst AG, had said it would do so if the hostile political climate over abortion changed.
Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said Clinton's actions amount to the government "promoting the use of abortion as birth control," and thereby increasing abortions in the United States and around the world.
Bush, under pressure from conservative Republicans, had moved even beyond Reagan in seeking to root out from the federal government any action that could be perceived as promoting or encouraging abortion. The clinic counseling ban, for example, was imposed two years ago. It directed that 4,000 federally funded family planning clinics be prohibited from offering abortion advice as part of their counseling.
On the international level, Reagan in 1984 required that U.S. assistance for overseas birth-control programs, currently about $430 million, be provided only to organizations that did not perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning. It removed funding from groups such as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
The fetal tissue research ban, imposed two years ago, drew outrage from the scientific community, which generally saw it as political interference with research. Richard Fuller of the American Federation of Clinical Research said yesterday that Clinton's reversal would make a "major difference" because it will remove a stigma that had limited the willingness of scientists and institutions to conduct private research.
Because such research is so expensive, little can be done outside the sponsorship -- or without the backing -- of the federal government. Institutions and individuals find raising private funding for research banned by the government difficult and risky, he said.
The research involves implanting cells taken from aborted fetuses into the brain and other organs as possible treatment for spinal cord injuries, diabetes and Parkinson's, where some early successes were reported. Scientists say growth of human cells from a fetal kidney was essential, for example, to the research that led to the polio vaccine. Mature cells, such as those taken from a cadaver or living person, are said to be far less usable because they are assimilated too slowly, are more easily rejected and take far longer to reproduce.
Besides the orders on abortion, Clinton yesterday fulfilled another campaign pledge in abolishing the Competitiveness Council, the Bush administration panel that reviewed all proposed federal regulations to ensure they did not interfere with private industry's ability to compete domestically and abroad.
Headed by then-Vice President Dan Quayle, the council came under sharp attack as a tool that business and industry used to protect their interests, not the public interest. The council also was accused of usurping the rule of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees federal regulation, and acting behind a shroud of secrecy by using the privacy protections afforded presidential office actions.