Why Trump froze funding to overseas groups that 'promote' abortion

President Trump reinstated Ronald Reagan's 'Mexico City policy' on Monday, barring foreign groups who perform or provide information on abortions from receiving any US aid. 

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump shows off a signed executive order to reinstitute a policy that will end US aid to nongovernmental organizations that include abortion services with non-US funds as a method of family planning in other countries on Jan. 23, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House.

In one of his first official actions as commander-in-chief of the United States, President Trump on Monday reinstated – and appeared to expand – a Reagan-era ban on US funding for foreign organizations that perform, or provide information about, abortion. 

Since its inception in 1984, reinstating or rescinding the rule blocking foreign aid for overseas groups that "promote" abortion has become a symbolic rite of passage for newly inaugurated presidents. There is no evidence that the rule, known as the "Mexico City policy" or "global gag rule," has been effective in reducing the number of overseas abortions performed under any administration. But research suggests that the ban can, in fact, have the opposite, effect of increasing the number of unsafe or illegal abortion procedures.  

Still, reinstating the rule is all but mandatory for a Republican president who wishes to maintain credibility with the pro-life community, experts say. In this way, Mr. Trump's reinstatement of the Mexico City policy isn't particularly surprising. But under the Trump administration, the policy may take on new significance in the eyes of critics and supporters alike. For some Trump voters, it's a fulfillment of the "America first" approach touted in Trump's inauguration speech. For pro-life advocates, it's a promising sign of action to come under a Republican-controlled Congress and White House. And for members of the pro-choice movement, it's the first shot fired in a looming battle over reproductive rights. 

"The Mexico City policy is either simply a sideshow or a means to an end, depending on how you look at it," says Daniel Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia who studies religion and politics. "Nevertheless, it has a lot of symbolic importance. And because of that symbolic importance, both sides will be watching carefully to see what President Trump does next." 

The Mexico City policy was first introduced under Ronald Reagan in 1984, following a series of failed anti-abortion measures. At the time, President Reagan had expressed strong rhetorical support for the pro-life movement, but lacked the policy achievements that his supporters expected. A quick, low-risk way to secure the support of the pro-life community, his administration determined, would be to issue an executive policy banning US funding for any international groups who perform, or provide information on, abortions. (It should be noted that using US aid dollars to directly fund abortions overseas has been prohibited since 1973 under the so-called Helms Amendment.) Reagan's policy was signed quickly and met with minimal backlash. 

There is no evidence that the Mexico City policy, under any administration, has been successful in reducing the number of abortions overseas. On the contrary, research suggests, it appears to have the opposite effect. The same clinics that offer abortion or abortion counseling are often the same ones that provide contraceptives to women from low-income families, says Andrzej Kulczycki, a professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Public Health. 

"The bottom line is that fewer women will be able to get contraceptives in countries that are more dependent on US funding for family planning," he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "You’re more likely to get unintended pregnancy as a result, and unintended pregnancies are more likely to lead to unsafe abortions … especially for poorer women." 

Advocates of family planning programs argue that they have played a valuable role in reducing global poverty and in empowering women, providing a path to development for poor countries, as the Monitor reported last year.

Still, a lack of evidence in support of the Mexico City policy hasn't stopped it from becoming a "litmus test" of sorts for incoming presidents, as Professor Williams puts it. 

Over time, "action on this policy has become simply a formality for presidents," he says in a Monitor interview. "It's something that has great symbolic importance, and is designed primarily to reassure the bases of the respective parties that the president is on their side." 

In a game of political tennis, President Clinton rescinded the Mexico City policy in 1993, whereupon President George W. Bush reinstated the policy when he took office in 2001. Likewise, rescinding the policy was one of President Obama's first executive orders in January 2009.

Given Trump’s ambiguous stands on abortion in the past, and challenges in winning over members of the religious right early in his campaign, it may be especially important for this president to reassure remaining doubters in the pro-life movement that he is committed to their cause, Williams notes. 

But for some in the anti-abortion movement, the move may be seen as more than just a symbolic indicator of support, says Joshua Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Denver. It comes at a particularly optimistic time for pro-life advocates, as they look hopefully to a Republican Congress and White House for anti-abortion action. 

"While administrations in the past could make these symbolic moves and end with them, really, because their hands were tied and the activity with abortion politics was taking place mostly at the state level, Trump isn’t in that position at all," Professor Wilson tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "Expectations are through the roof and everything is lined up for federal government action. So this is just going to be some kind of opening move, and pressure will be on him to do more subsequent moves in the months and years to come." 

For members of the pro-choice camp, Trump's reinstatement of the Mexico City policy may also take on new meaning, political observers note. The policy feels especially timely, regardless of intention, when one considers that it was signed a mere two days after more than 1 million people turned out for women’s marches across the globe to advocate for, among other causes, reproductive rights, marking what participants described as the beginning of a larger resistance movement. 

"I think neither side was particularly surprised by [Trump bringing back the policy]. It’s exactly what one would expect from a Republican president," Williams says. "But the fact that he has done it sends a signal that this new administration is determined not to be influenced by those critical voices that come from the pro-choice movement or women's rights organizations." 

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