January 24, 2009
Soon after President Barack Obama took office, the massive crowds that had thronged Washington’s National Mall for his inauguration were replaced by Thursday’s annual March for Life, an anti-abortion rally of tens of thousands, all eager to deliver their message to the new leader.
“We may have lost an election, but we have not lost the war,” Republican Senator Sam Brownback told the crowd. “We will continue to fight for life, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many marches it takes.”
Obama’s response was prompt, and not reassuring for the marchers. It left both friends and foes wondering if his call for change might include a makeover of the conservative culture that has flourished in the United States during the years of Republican rule.
Yesterday, he signed an executive order reversing a ban on U.S. federal funding for international organizations that facilitate or counsel on abortion in other countries.
The order will cancel George W. Bush’s policy of refusing aid to such groups. The policy is known as the “gag law” because groups that even mentioned abortion to their clients were denied funds.
The gag law goes back to a 1984 order by president Ronald Reagan that was reversed in Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration before being reinstated by Bush.
On Thursday – the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s contentious Roe v. Wade ruling that struck down most abortion laws in the United States – Obama reaffirmed his commitment to abortion rights, stating that the case “not only protects women’s health and reproductive freedom, but stands for a broader principle that government should not intrude on our most private family matters.”
Reproductive rights advocates welcomed the moves as a sign that the shelf life of Bush’s restrictive policies had expired.
“With the stroke of a pen, President Obama has lifted the stranglehold on women’s health across the globe,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “It truly is a new day for women’s health.”
Added Bill Ryerson, president of the Washington-based Population Institute “There were so many areas in which the U.S. slid back during the Bush administration,”
“The gag rule alone led to closure of one-third of the family planning clinics of Kenya. As a result, the birth rate went back up, which has badly affected women’s lives.”
Abortion is a key issue for the religious right, which gained in power during Bush’s tenure. One of his first acts as president was to establish a White House office of “faith-based and community initiatives.”
Bush’s parting present to anti-abortion supporters was a new regulation that would allow health-care workers to refuse participation in a broad range of services, including abortion referrals and provision of emergency contraception, if they had personal objections.
Obama is well aware that the explosive emotions engendered by abortion have not cooled. He tempered his abortion statement by acknowledging the divisiveness of the issue, saying that “no matter what our views, we are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies.”
But does his willingness to press such a hot-button issue so early in his term signal an effort to change American hearts as well as minds?
Although liberals welcome the message of hope, some aren’t sure it will lead to radical change.
“We hope (Obama) will do great things for women’s rights after so much damage has been done by Bush,” says Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the international women’s advocacy group Equality Now.
“As a politician he understands that women are a large percentage of his constituents. But I think he is a very cautious president. He has an aura of liberalism, but he wants to be a president for all.”
Obama’s message of hope must go deeper than rhetoric if it is to produce a more inclusive, just and democratic society, warns American-born Henry Giroux of McMaster University, named one of the leading educators of the past century.
“The concept of hope isn’t audacious enough, unless there is a transformation of the culture to go with it,” he says.
“That means putting money into education that will accomplish that goal. We need a shift in the language of government responsibility, and a resurrection of the language of social contract and democracy which has been silent for eight years.”
With the economy in its worst crisis in decades, however, there are fears that cultural and ideological issues may fall through the cracks of Obama’s overwhelming agenda. And that the atmosphere of a country in economic trauma may be less, not more, conducive to progressive change.
“Obama is an extremely sane leader with the kind of moral core that Bush never had,” says Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists The Christian Right and the War on America. “But his attempts to build bridges may be doomed to failure.”
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