Abortion Policy: Gag Reflex
A policy intended to cut abortions is likely to do just the opposite.
One ritual has become familiar for a president’s first week in the Oval Office.
It has long been illegal for federal money to be used to fund abortions anywhere.
On January 23rd, four days into his presidency, Donald Trump signed an executive order that bans government aid to foreign non-governmental organisations that “actively promote” abortion, for example by telling a woman that abortion is a legally available option.
Since 1984, when the policy first came about, it has been swiftly revoked by incoming Democratic presidents and reinstated by Republican ones.
Past experience suggests that this “global gag rule” will lead to more abortions, not fewer.
A study by researchers at Stanford University found that after the policy came into effect in 2001, the abortion rate increased sharply in sub-Saharan African countries that had been receiving substantial amounts of aid for family-planning programmes.
By contrast, the abortion rate remained stable in countries that were less dependent on such aid.
The study, as well as anecdotal accounts and research by NGOs, suggest that abortions rose because of cuts in the supply of contraceptives.
In many poor countries NGOs funded by Western governments are big providers of contraceptives, and many fall foul of the Mexico City policy (named after the population conference at which it was first unveiled).
Some provide abortions, others just information on where a safe, legal abortion can be obtained.
Both can be life-saving: many women die from botched abortions, even in countries where abortion is legal.
Some NGOs have chosen to close clinics rather than accept money with the new strings.
Marie Stopes International, a British NGO, estimates the measure could cut 1.5m women off its family planning services in 2017 and lead to 2.2m more abortions in the next four years.
In the past, European countries have upped their aid for family-planning programmes to fill what an EU official called the “decency gap” in aid.
A day after Mr Trump resurrected the policy the Dutch government said it will set up a special fund to counter its impact.
This time round the gap could be larger.
Previously, the Mexico City policy applied only to aid for family-planning programmes, which in 2016 stood at about $600m.
Mr Trump’s version covers all global health aid, a pot as large as $9.5bn a year.
That is about a third of rich countries’ total foreign aid for health care.
Nobody knows how many NGOs will shun money under the new rules.
The casualties may include the foot soldiers in America’s global campaign against HIV/AIDS, which has beaten back the disease in Africa. (George W. Bush made an exception for HIV/AIDS when he resurrected the Mexico City rules.)
Supporters of the policy see it as pro-life.
Sadly, the probable outcome may be just the opposite.