President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to address the controversial women’s health organization Planned Parenthood on Friday. The president addressed the group in 2008 before taking office. (The Washington Post)

President Obama spoke to nearly a thousand Planned Parenthood supporters Friday, telling them that moves to restrict abortion access across the country represented an effort “to turn back the clock to policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century.”

“When you read about some of these laws, you want to check the calendar,” Obama told the crowd at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Northwest Washington. “You want to make sure you’re still living in 2013.”

The appearance underscored the central role women played in helping to reelect Obama in November. It also marked the first time that a sitting U.S. president has delivered a keynote address to Planned Parenthood, one of the nation’s largest providers of abortions and other women’s health services.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards praised Obama for preserving the group’s federal funding during budget negotiations with Republicans and for providing full coverage for birth control as part of the administration’s health-care law.

“That is equity, that is justice, that’s what it means to have a president who cares about women,” Richards said.

See abortion laws by state

But abortion opponents sharply criticized Obama for his decision to speak to the group, saying it was particularly inappropriate given the ongoing controversy about a Philadelphia abortion doctor, Kermit Gosnell, who is on trial on charges of killing one adult patient and four infants in his care. Some women who had initially visited Gosnell’s clinic later complained to Planned Parenthood staff in Philadelphia about the unclean conditions there.

“It is outrageous that President Obama addressed the Planned Parenthood gathering this morning, at a time when Planned Parenthood has been exposed for having known about the Gosnell horrors, yet took no action to report this abuse of women and babies,” said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association, which opposes abortion.

Dayle Steinberg, president of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, has said the complaints her staff received did not include accusations that Gosnell was oversedating patients and killing babies born alive.

Obama’s appearance came as antiabortion legislation is gaining traction on the state level. In the past two months, four states — Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas and North Dakota — have adopted some of the most stringent abortion measures in the nation, while Virginia has imposed new rules requiring abortion providers to comply with hospital-style building standards.

Overall, lawmakers in 42 states have introduced legislation this year that would impose some kind of limits on access to abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that researches and studies sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Obama took particularaim in his remarks at North Dakota’s law, which bans abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected at around six weeks.

“A woman may not even know that she’s pregnant at six weeks,” he said, adding later, “As long as we’ve got to fight to make sure women have access to quality, affordable health care, and as long as we’ve got to fight to protect a woman’s right to make her own choices about her own health, I want you to know that you’ve also got a president who’s going to be right there with you fighting every step of the way.”

Susan Cohen, director of government affairs at Guttmacher, praised the Obama administration for its support of abortion rights. “Having a White House that’s very clear and very strong on these issues makes a difference on whether these efforts get any traction or not,” she said.

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