WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Obama struck down a rule Friday that prohibits U.S. money from funding international family-planning clinics that promote abortion or provide counseling or referrals about abortion services.
President Obama says he doesn't want family planning to be used as a "political wedge."
Obama said in a statement that family planning aid has been used as a "political wedge issue," adding that he had "no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate."
The policy says any organization receiving U.S. family-planning funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development cannot offer abortions or abortion counseling.
"It is time we end the politicization of this issue," Obama said. "In the coming weeks, my administration will initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world."
Obama's memorandum reversing the policy comes the day after the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision held that a woman's right to an abortion fell within the right to privacy protected by the 14th Amendment. The ruling gave a woman autonomy over her pregnancy during the first trimester. Watch CNN's Bill Schneider on how Obama is handling abortion issue »
The memorandum reverses the "Mexico City policy," initiated by President Reagan in 1984, canceled by President Clinton and reinstated by President George W. Bush in 2001.
The policy, referred to by critics as "the global gag rule," was initially announced at a population conference in Mexico City.
Reversing the previous administrations' stance on the policy was one of Clinton's first acts as president in January 1993 and the very first executive order issued by Bush on January 22, 2001, the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Critics, including Planned Parenthood, called Bush's move a "legislative ambush."
He defended his action, saying, "It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortion or actively promote abortion."
The group Population Action International praised Obama's move, saying in a statement that it will "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," the group said.
"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."
Republican lawmakers were critical of the new president's action.
"Not even waiting a week, the new administration has acted to funnel U.S. tax dollars to abortion providers overseas," Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia, said in a written statement.
"This is a stunning reversal of course from the president's campaign statements that he hoped to reduce the number of abortions. Just a day after thousands of Americans came to Washington to celebrate the principle of life, President Obama has made it clear that reducing abortions is not one of his priorities."
In his statement, however, Obama said he had directed his staff "to reach out to those on all sides of this issue to achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies."
"They will also work to promote safe motherhood, reduce maternal and infant mortality rates and increase educational and economic opportunities for women and girls."
The president added that he looked forward to "working with Congress to restore U.S. financial support for the U.N. Population Fund."
The Bush administration has repeatedly withheld funding authorized by Congress for the U.N. fund, saying the agency has funded a forced sterilization program in China. The fund has repeatedly denied that accusation.
"By signaling his intention to restore U.S. funding for UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, President Barack Obama is signaling his re-engagement with the international community on the critical challenge of improving reproductive health around the world," UN Foundation President Timothy Wirth said.
"For the past seven years, UNFPA funding has been a victim of false accusations and misinformation that had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with sound policy," he said.
"Approximately 180 industrialized and developing countries, including all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, contribute to UNFPA. The United States was the only country to withhold funding for political reasons."
CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.