WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama signed an executive order on abortion on Wednesday that had won crucial votes for his healthcare bill, but disappointed women's groups that have been among his most enthusiastic supporters.
The order is intended to ensure the new healthcare law will maintain a ban on the use of federal money to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest, or if the life of a woman is in danger.
The White House announced on Sunday that Obama would sign the order in exchange for support for the massive healthcare overhaul bill from Democratic abortion rights opponents' in the House of Representatives.
The support from the roughly dozen members of that group, led by Representative Bart Stupak, was essential to get the 216 votes necessary for the House to pass the bill.
Abortion rights advocates said they were furious about the signing, which they said gave extra weight to an anti-abortion measure known as the Hyde Amendment, but acknowledged they were unlikely to campaign against healthcare reform or most candidates who supported the bill.
While Obama celebrated his signature healthcare law with two public events on Tuesday, he signed the executive order behind closed doors, at an event attended by some of the abortion opponents but closed to the press.
"We remain deeply dismayed by it. President Obama campaigned as a pro-choice candidate. He campaigned as a person, he said, who was opposed to the Hyde Amendment. This deal, with Bart Stupak, is simply unacceptable," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.
"It does change the status quo," she said, stating that the order essentially denied abortion rights to low-income women.
"It's one thing to acknowledge that the Hyde Amendment has been passed every year for 30 years. It is quite a different thing to say that as if that's OK, as if the leaders of Congress, who are pro-choice, are going to say we're going to stop fighting that battle because we just don't care about low- income women," she said.
Abortion rights opponents were also unhappy with the order, saying it did not go far enough in banning government funding for abortions.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declined to comment on the decision to make the signing a closed event, saying only that the White House would release a picture taken by its official photographer.
"The president has always believed that healthcare reform should be about that, not about other issues," Gibbs said. "The president did not, in healthcare reform, believe we did change the status quo, and believes that this reiterates that it's not changed."
Editing by Peter Cooney