President Barack Obama lifted the ban on US funding for international organisations that offer advice or perform abortions yesterday, as he expanded his project of rolling back George Bush's ideological agenda. Obama quietly signed an executive order late yesterday afternoon repealing the ban, called the "global gag rule" by family planning organisations because it prohibited groups from even discussing abortion. There was no media coverage of the signing, in contrast to the high-profile ceremonies this week when Obama issued his orders on ethics reform and Guantánamo Bay. Instead, he adopted a non-confrontational approach to his repeal of the ban, waiting until after Thursday's anniversary of the Roe v Wade supreme court decision on abortion to avoid antagonising pro-life groups. The ban was introduced by Ronald Reagan at a conference in Mexico City in 1984. In the 25 years since, funding for such organisations has become a political tennis match between Democrats and Republicans. Bill Clinton reinstated funding on the anniversary of Roe v Wade when he was inaugurated as president in 1993. Bush chose the same occasion to reverse the measure when he became president in 2001. Obama, who campaigned to end America's divisive cultural wars, broke that pattern with yesterday's low key order. But the reaction was still starkly polarised. Family planning organisations praised the decision to lift the ban. Diana Hovig, the chief executive of Marie Stopes International, said that the Bush era policies had been a disaster; under them, her organisation, as a provider of sexual healthcare services, had been denied funding. "This marks the beginning of a new era of realism over dogma in serving the public health needs of women. President Obama is off to a flying start." Christian and anti-abortion organisations were scathing. "Yesterday, President Obama issued executive orders banning the torture of terrorists, but today signed an order that exports the torture of unborn children around the world," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Women's health advocates hoped yesterday's decision would be the first in a series by Obama to roll back Bush administration policies on abortion. They are hoping to see cuts in funding for abstinence education, a pet project of Bush, and a restoration of funds for sex education and mothers' health. The new president is expected to move at some point to lift restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research. Obama is also expected to restore funding to the United Nations Population Fund. Bush had banned its funding on the grounds that the fund's work in China helped support coercive sterilisation. The global gag rule was also devastating for non-governmental organisations working on women's health and HIV-Aids. International Planned Parenthood lost more than $100m (£72.7m) funding during the Bush years. Women's rights advocates say it robbed women of access to information about contraception, and forced those seeking to end unwanted pregnancies into dangerous illegal abortions. The impact was especially severe in sub-Saharan Africa and other poor parts of the world with high rates of HIV and Aids as well as high levels of infant and maternal mortality. Otherwise, the focus remained on the economy yesterday. Obama met Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders for the first time at the White House to try to arm-twist them into pushing through his proposed $825bn economic stimulus package. In spite of resistance from Republicans and some Democrats, Obama expressed confidence that the legislation would be on his desk by the middle of next month. Republican and Democratic members of Congress have expressed scepticism about whether the huge injection of cash will be enough to combat the recession. Republicans are pushing for more tax cuts while Democrats want more spending on infrastructure projects. Obama said: "I recognise that there are still some differences around the table and between the administration and members of Congress about particular details on the plan. But I think what unifies this group is a recognition that we are experiencing an unprecedented, perhaps, economic crisis that has to be dealt with, and dealt with rapidly."