President Barack Obama on Friday overturned an eight-year ban on US government funding for family planning organizations which carry out or facilitate abortions overseas, a White House official said.
Obama signed an executive order cancelling the restrictions, on the third full day of his presidency, spokesman Bill Burton said.
With the restrictions lifted, more "healthcare entities can receive US funds for family planning and reach a bigger pool of women," Tait Sye, a spokesman for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) told AFP.
The so-called "global gag rule" cut off US funding to overseas family planning clinics which provide any abortion services whatsoever, from the operation itself to counseling, referrals or post-abortion services.
First introduced by Republican president Ronald Reagan in 1984, it has been repeatedly overturned by Democratic administrations and then reintroduced by the Republicans.
Obama's action overturned the orders of president George W. Bush, who when he came into office in 2001 immediately froze funds to many family planning groups working overseas.
Anti-abortion and anti-conservative groups had previously condemned Obama for the move, but liberal groups welcomed the decision.
According to Population Action International (PAI), the gag rule resulted in funds being cut off to family planning clinics in 29 countries, including Lesotho, a tiny southern African country which has been ravaged by AIDS.
Among clinics in Lesotho affected by the funding freeze was one which had distributed 400,000 condoms from 1998-2000, PAI said.
Nepal's largest family planning provider lost all USAID-donated contraceptives, or two-thirds of its total supply, because of the gag rule, and the number of women in Ghana seeking care for complications after an abortion nearly doubled after contraceptive supplies were cut off, PAI said.
Women in developing countries, where access to contraception is poor, often turn to abortion as a means of birth control, a World Bank report published in May said.
Tod Preston, vice president of PAI, called the lifting of the gag rule "an important step to save women's lives around the world.
"Family planning should not be a political issue; it's about basic health care and well-being for women and children," Preston said in a statement.
The PPFA hailed Obama for "lifting the stranglehold on women's health across the globe with the stroke of a pen."
"No longer will health care providers be forced to choose between receiving family planning funding and restricting the health care services they provide to women," the organization said in a statement.
But anti-abortion groups were up in arms and vowed to fight the move.
"We were prepared for this and we will work very hard in Congress to see what we can do to get this overturned," Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, told AFP.
"We've got a president who is rabidly in favor of abortion even though he says he's not," Brown said.
"I think it's a horrible tactic to take toward third world countries if the best we can do for them is provide organizations with the money needed to perform abortions on their children. It's an outrage."
Conservative lawmakers also slammed the move. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said it was "counter to our nation's interests," while House Republican Whip Eric Cantor called it "a divisive action."
Cantor said he was "saddened by this decision and the lives that will be lost because of it."
Abortion is a hot-button issue in the United States, pitting pro-life conservative groups against more liberal, pro-choice Americans who back a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
A 1973 decision by the Supreme Court legalized abortion and gave the United States some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the world.
According to a poll conducted by Gallup in May, more than a quarter of Americans (28 percent) believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances, while 17 percent back a total ban on abortion.
A majority of Americans -- 54 percent -- think abortion should be allowed under certain circumstances, the poll showed.