It might have been the perfect symbolism for Barack Obama – abolishing a key anti-abortion provision on the very anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision Thursday.
Yet Thursday came and went without Obama changing the rule, the way two presidents before him did on that day. Obama even issued a statement marking the 36th anniversary of Roe – but no rule change.
Instead, he’s planning to do it Friday – and aides suggest he’s choosing a different kind of symbolism, to show that he’s not always going to do the usual Washington thing, even though his staunch supporters in the abortion rights community were pressing him to do it quickly.
It might seem like a small thing – the difference of a day – but it’s a sign of how Obama at times seems to almost delight in keeping supporters just a bit off-balance.
It’s also a way to send an subtle message to moderate and conservative voters that he isn’t going to wear his support for abortion rights on his sleeve.
The rule in question is passed back and forth between Republican and Democratic White Houses.
It’s known as the Mexico City Policy, or global gag rule, which bans federally funded non-government organizations from performing abortions in foreign countries.
It started under President Ronald Reagan, a Republican. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, lifted the ban by executive order on January 22, 1993. President George W. Bush, a Republican, reinstated it as his first executive order on January 22, 2001.
Now it’s the Democrat’s turn. Obama promised during the campaign to lift the ban, which critics say prevents the groups from supplying women with contraception to prevent pregnancy.
Obama aides said the president also didn’t want to change the rule Thursday because it could have overshadowed other news, including the executive orders to close Guantanamo Bay, and his visit to the State Department with Hillary Clinton.
Groups that support abortion rights are being patient.
The president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, said she doesn’t think the slow response means Obama won’t reverse the rule. “I fully expect for this to happen sometime soon,” she said.
And Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said she’s “not making hay” of the delay.
But supporters of the Mexico City policy, who say it reduces the number of abortions, are finding some hope in the president’s delay. The rule was on their minds on Thursday during their annual March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.
“We’re thrilled,” said Ashley Horne, federal policy analyst at the conservative religious group Focus on the Family. “All signs point to that he will probably do away with the policy at some point but we’re happy that for the time being that the Mexico City Policy is in place.”
Reagan enacted the Mexico City policy in 1984, named for the city where it was announced. President George H.W. Bush kept the policy. Clinton called it “excessively broad” and reversed it.
George W. Bush reinstated the policy because he said he believed people’s taxes should not be used to fund or promote abortion programs overseas.
Obama has signaled that he’s interested in making something of a centrist shift in the abortion debate – with more focus on the importance of reducing the number of abortions. The statement he released Thursday on Roe signals as much.
“While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue, no matter what our views, 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,” Obama said.
“To accomplish these goals, we must work to find common ground to expand access to affordable contraception, accurate health information, and preventative services.”