WASHINGTON - Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president on Friday to address Planned Parenthood, taking a forceful pro-choice stand in a speech to the non-profit abortion rights organization that's a detested and frequent target of social conservatives.
The president, weighing in on a hot-button issue that bitterly divides Americans, criticized efforts at both state and federal levels to deny funding to Planned Parenthood and to thwart access to abortion.
In his speech to about 1,000 in attendance, Obama accused Planned Parenthood's conservative foes of seeking to force 1950s-era laws upon Americans.
"The fact is, after decades of progress, there's still those who want to turn back the clock to policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century," Obama said. "And they've been involved in an orchestrated and historic effort to roll back basic rights when it comes to women's health."
Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed abortion legal, however, most polls suggest more Americans are pro-life than pro-choice. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 45 per cent of Americans believe abortion should be legal most or all of the time, while 52 per cent said it should be illegal, either with or without exceptions.
That's in stark contrast to the situation in Canada, where public opinion surveys routinely find that Canadians overwhelmingly support legal abortion. A recent Angus Reid poll also found that Canadians have no appetite for reopening the debate on abortion.
The simmering social issue burbled to the surface on Parliament Hill recently when two Tory backbenchers complained that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was trying to muzzle them in the House of Commons on abortion.
Harper has said he has no intention of reopening the debate, but there's long been friction within the Conservative caucus over the issue.
Obama, meantime, vowed on Friday to stand with Planned Parenthood in the ongoing "assault on women's rights" that's playing out across the United States.
He pointed to bills introduced in nearly every state legislature to limit or ban abortion outright or to curtail access to birth control, singling out the situation in North Dakota, in particular.
That state is home to the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the nation, outlawing the procedure after the sixth week of pregnancy.
"A woman may not even know that she's pregnant at six weeks," Obama said.
He assured Planned Parenthood officials that they've "got a president who is going to be right there with you, fighting every step of the way."
He also praised the organization's 100 years of service to women. Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health and maternal and child health services, including cancer screenings and contraceptives.
While conservatives malign it as being the biggest abortion provider in the country, the organization says only three per cent of the services it provides are abortion-related.
"When politicians try to turn Planned Parenthood into a punching bag, they're not just talking about you," Obama said. "They're talking about the millions of women who you serve."
Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood president, praised Obama in her introduction for providing full coverage for birth control as part of his sweeping health-care reform law.
"That is equity, that is justice, that's what it means to have a president who cares about women," Richards said.
Obama has been an avid Planned Parenthood booster throughout his presidency. But the bonds grew stronger during the 2012 presidential election campaign, when Republican criticism about contraceptive measures in so-called Obamacare created a wedge issue for the president that saw his support among women climb even higher.
He made a point Friday of thanking Planned Parenthood for its support of Obamacare, urging it to take part in an awareness campaign when some of the law's most crucial provisions kick in next year.
Polls suggest Americans are still deeply confused about how the law works. If they fail to use new, state-based insurance marketplaces available next year, those marketplaces won't work as they're supposed to.
Enrolment in those marketplaces, where consumers can purchase private insurance plans, is slated to open in October.
"If Americans don't know how to access the new benefits and protections ... then health-care reform won't make much of a difference in their lives," Obama said in his speech.
"We've got to spread the word, particularly among women — particularly among young women, who are the ones who are most likely to benefit from these laws."