Liberal groups welcomed the decision while abortion rights foes criticized the president. Known as the "Mexico City policy," the ban has been reinstated and then reversed by Republican and Democratic presidents since GOP President Ronald Reagan established it in 1984. President Bill Clinton ended the ban in 1993, but President George W. Bush re-instituted it in 2001 as one of his first acts in office.
The policy bans U.S. taxpayer money, usually in the form of U.S. Agency for International Development funds, from going to international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide information, counseling or referrals about abortion. It is also known as the "global gag rule," because it prohibits taxpayer funding for groups that lobby to legalize abortion or promote it as a family planning method.
The Democratic official and senior U.S. official who disclosed the plans did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to pre-empt Obama's announcement.
Obama was expected to sign the executive order at a low-key event, one day after the 36th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.
The move was not a surprise as both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will oversee foreign aid, had promised to do away with the gag rule during the presidential campaign. Clinton is to visit the U.S. Agency for International Development, through which much U.S. foreign aid is disbursed, later on Friday.
Obama has spent his first days in office systematically signing executive orders reversing Bush administration policies on issues ranging from foreign policy to government operations. But, save for ending the ban, Obama has largely refrained from wading into ideological issues, perhaps to avoid being tagged a traditional partisan from the outset after his campaign promises to change "business as usual" in the often partisan-gridlocked capital.
Rather, Obama has chosen to focus initially on issues in which there is consensus across the political spectrum and support from the public, such as closing the prison camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to making government documents more accessible.
In a move related to the lifting of the abortion ban, Obama also is expected to restore funding to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) at his earliest opportunity, probably in the next budget. Both he and Clinton made this a campaign issue.
The Bush administration had barred U.S. money from going to the fund, contending that work in China supported a Chinese family planning policy of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization. UNFPA has vehemently denied that it does.
Organizations that had pressed Obama to make the abortion-ban change were jubilant.
"Women's health has been severely impacted by the cutoff of assistance. President Obama's actions will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, abortions and women dying from high-risk pregnancies because they don't have access to family planning," said Tod Preston, a spokesman for Population Action International, an advocacy group.
Anti-abortion groups criticized the move.
"President Obama not long ago told the American people that he would support policies to reduce abortions, but today he is effectively guaranteeing more abortions by funding groups that promote abortion as a method of population control," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.