President Barack Obama speaks to reporters during his meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders Friday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. ((Charles Dharapak/Associated Press))

U.S. President Barack Obama reversed a ban implemented by his predecessor, George W. Bush, on funding for international groups that perform abortions or provide information about the procedures to women abroad, the White House said Friday.

"For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate."

He said the ban was unnecessarily broad and undermined family planning in developing countries.

It is the latest in a series of tit-for-tat executive orders surrounding the contentious issue of abortion as Democratic and Republican presidents replaced each other over the past 28 years.

The memorandum, which Obama signed late Friday afternoon without media fanfare, was immediately lauded by pro-choice groups. Anti-abortion advocates criticized the president for what they said was a betrayal of his campaign pledge to support policies that reduced the number of abortions.

In one of his first acts as president in January 2001, Bush, who opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman's life, ordered federal funding be cut off to international groups that either offer abortions or provide information, counselling or referrals about abortion.

The ban is also known by critics as the "global gag rule," because it prohibits taxpayer funding for groups that even talk about abortion if there is an unplanned pregnancy.

Pro-choice and women's health groups argued the ban limited the reproductive rights of women in developing countries and increased the chances of women around the world dying from high-risk pregnancies because they lacked access to family planning.

Dropped by Clinton

Two former Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, had similar bans in place.

One of the first things Democrat Bill Clinton did when he assumed office in 1993 was to rescind the order.

Obama's order came one day after the 36th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion in the United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will oversee foreign aid, had promised to do away with the rule during the presidential campaign.

Clinton said Friday evening that for seven years Bush's policy made it more difficult for women around the world to gain access to essential information and health care services.

"Rather than limiting women's ability to receive reproductive health services, we should be supporting programs that help women and their partners make decisions to ensure their health and the health of their families," Clinton said.

In a move related to the lifting of the abortion rule, Obama is also expected to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), probably in the next federal budget. Both he and Clinton had pledged to reverse a Bush administration determination that assistance to the organization violated U.S. law known as the Kemp-Kasten amendment.

The memorandum follows other executive orders the new president signed in his first few days in office to reverse other Bush administration policies.

They include an order to close the controversial detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year and banning U.S. officials from using coercive interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects.

With files from the Associated Press