WASHINGTON (CN) – President Obama on Thursday signed an executive order extending the ban on federal funding for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest, or when a woman’s life would be endangered. Obama promised Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., he would sign the executive order in exchange for Stupak’s vote for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The order is considered symbolic by most activists on both sides of the abortion debate as federal law; the Hyde Amendment on all Health and Human Services funding bills already restricts the use of federal funds for abortion.
In contrast to the public signing of the health insurance reform bill, which Obama completed with 22 pens amid much cheering and clapping, the president signed the executive order in a closed-door ceremony with Stupak and other anti-choice Democrats.
During a press conference afterward, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the closed session was transparent because official White House photos of the event would be released.
Gibbs evaded the question of whether the order was legally necessary or was just a sop to anti-choice Democrats, in the following exchange with Jake Tapper of ABC News:
Tapper: … Does the president think that this executive order is necessary? Does he think that there was ambiguity in the law? Or does he think that there wasn’t any ambiguity but this was just done because people like Bart Stupak wanted it done?
Gibbs: Well, I would say the president believed that the law – the president has always believed that health care reform should be about that, not about other issues. The president did not, in health care reform, believe we did change the status quo and believes that this reiterates that it’s not changed.
Q: So he doesn’t think it’s necessary; it’s just reiterating what is already in the law?
A: I mean, it’s an executive order so this isn’t – I mean, it’s not a frivolous thing, Jake.
Q: No, of course not. But does this executive order change anything that the law already didn’t do?
A: It ensures that health care, the law the president signed yesterday, maintains the status quo of the federal law prohibiting the federal use – the use of federal dollars for abortion.
Q: So it is needed, that the law was not clear enough?
A: The president reiterated that in the executive order.
Q: So all he’s doing is repeating what’s in the law? So it’s just – I mean, you can’t have it both ways. Either the executive order is needed to clarify something that’s not …
A: No, I – again, I would refer you to the executive order and the statements that we made about this over the weekend.
Q: I read the executive order, and it says that’s a reiteration of what already exists.
A: Well, there you go.
Q: So it’s not necessary? Not legally necessary?
A: We reiterated …
Q: Might have been necessary for other reasons, but it’s not legally necessary?
A: No, we reiterated the status quo, and we’re comfortable reiterating that status quo.