In one of his first acts as President, Barack Obama has lifted a ban on federal funding for international abortion groups.
The move means that US taxpayers will be funding one side of a political issue which is perhaps the most hotly contested in American politics: abortion.
He signed the executive order late on Friday but did not invite the media to cover the event.
Pro-life groups will interpret the decision to lift the ban as provocative and it is likely open deep rifts in American politics.
British commentator, Melanie Phillips, said: “Abortion is possibly the most toxic and divisive issue in American politics.”
“Obama has said he wants to end the ‘culture wars’ in America; it is hard to think of a more effective way of igniting them,” she added.
A number of commentators have noted that the President’s inauguration speech glaringly omitted ‘the right to life’ when talking about the nation’s founding principles.
During the speech the President noted the “noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
But the Declaration of Independence famously asserts the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America is the nation’s largest provider of abortion services. It hailed President Obama for “lifting the stranglehold on women’s health across the globe with the stroke of a pen.”
“No longer will health care providers be forced to choose between receiving family planning funding and restricting the health care services they provide to women,” the organisation said in a statement.
But pro-life groups have criticised the move. Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said it would guarantee more abortions.
He said: “President Obama not long ago told the American people that he would support policies to reduce abortions, but today he is effectively guaranteeing more abortions by funding groups that promote abortion as a method of population control.”
According to news reports, President Obama is also expected to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in the next budget.
The previous administration under President George W Bush said the fund’s work in China supported a Chinese family planning policy of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilisation. But the UNFPA has vehemently denied those claims.
The current White House agenda states that President Obama has pledged to oppose any constitutional amendment to protect the lives of unborn children.
He says he will actively defend Roe v Wade, a legal ruling which effectively legalised abortion in America.
He also plans to overturn a ban on embryonic stem cell research which involves the destruction of human embryos. This comes at a time when ethical alternatives are proving more successful.