The only way forward for the pro-life cause is to defund the abortion industry. Defunding Planned Parenthood is an essential first step, but the Mexico City Policy is what will get the job done internationally.
This week’s announcement that the Trump administration is working on the expansion of the policy under the title “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance,” which will apply to nearly $9 billion of US global health assistance, is excellent news for the pro-life movement and further evidence of President Trump’s pro-life bona fides.
In 1984, the Reagan administration outlined this pro-life policy during a UN conference on population and development in Mexico. It prevents any US foreign assistance from funding groups that perform and promote abortions. It is effective, self-enforcing, and does not cost taxpayers a dime. All it requires is that groups receiving US foreign aid sign an agreement not to promote or perform abortions.
In spite of its simplicity, the Mexico City Policy’s global influence is both enduring and widespread. Its signature prescription that abortion must not be promoted “as a method of family planning” was enshrined in UN policy in 1984 and remains in effect to this day. It casts abortion in a negative light and denies the UN a mandate to promote abortion. Abortion groups hate it so much they disparagingly call it the “global gag rule” because it denies groups that would otherwise promote abortion the ability to do so.
But the true genius of the Mexico City Policy lies in its strategic value to the pro-life movement, because it erodes the resources and political support of the global abortion industry. It harks back to the tactics of early abolitionists, who were forced to adopt a gradual strategy, first regulating the slave trade in order to cut into its profits and thereby its political influence, and only later legally abolishing the slave trade and then the institution of slavery itself.
I suspect President Reagan understood that abortion can never be eradicated so long as the abortion industry continues to be propped up by political and financial support from governments around the world.
The Global Abortion Conglomerate
For decades, abortion groups have been on the receiving end of a constant flow of funds from governments and philanthropists. Even governments in countries whose laws protect children in the womb, whether or not they know it, subsidize a global abortion lobby that protects the interests of the abortion industry in every country and at every level of governance under the rubric of “sexual and reproductive health.” This is the single largest item on the global health agenda, with nearly twelve billion dollars donated to the cause last year.
Thanks to this massive public subsidy, abortion groups are not only able to influence policy domestically and internationally, they also shape the narrative about health and international policy among policy elites and in the mainstream media.
Consider a sample of the lies and misinformation that were disseminated in the wake of the Trump administration’s reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy in February and March. The Washington Post and The New York Times’ editorial boards proclaimed that “The Trump administration threatens to imperil women’s health worldwide” and “Mr. Trump’s ‘Gag Rule’ Will Harm Global Health.” They warned about “cutting off family-planning funds” and aid funds “set to go dry.” Following the announcement this week, the New York Times once again ran with hysterical quotes that warned of “undoing years of progress on women’s health.”
Of course, none of this is even remotely true. The Mexico City Policy does not cut funding for health or family planning. In fact, President Trump could not cut US funding for global health and family planning even if he wanted to. The funds at issue are appropriated by Congress. The policy only cuts funding to abortion groups—specifically, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International, the only two groups for whom abortion is so essential that they will refuse US funds if they cannot be spent on abortion.
But the abortion industry and its global lobbying operation are so powerful that facts don’t matter. And their reach is remarkable. Even the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, a Portuguese politician with a pro-life record, denigrated the Mexico City Policy as a form of “backlash” against “sexual and reproductive rights.” The head of the UN Population Fund, Babatunde Osotimehin, went so far as to call it a “violation of human rights.” The bureaucrat who heads the UN office for human rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad of Jordan, referred to it as a “retrogressive measure.” His second in command, abortion activist Kate Gilmore, presided over an anti-Trump festival in Brussels called “She Decides” where European governments got together with UN agencies and billionaire philanthropists to pledge a $200 million bailout of the abortion industry. Canada’s Justin Trudeau pledged $160 million on top of that.
To add insult to injury, powerful EU Commissioners and the EU Parliament openly refer to the Mexico City Policy by the disparaging term “global gag rule,” even though there is no common EU position on abortion, and it is considered an exclusive prerogative of national legislatures.
So long as groups and individuals profit from abortion, they will also be able to influence politicians and bureaucrats and the media narrative around the world. Unless this veritable global abortion lobby is crippled by defunding it, it will be impossible ever to protect children in the womb.
Closing Loopholes at Home
The Mexico City Policy was designed to close a loophole that allowed abortion groups to receive US funds despite the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act. The clause of that act known as the Helms amendment came to be narrowly interpreted as only blocking direct funding of abortion. Because funds are fungible, groups dedicated to performing and promoting abortion alongside contraceptive practices were still able to receive US foreign assistance. The Mexico City Policy was a way to put an end to this loophole and deprive abortion groups of US funds altogether.
But the policy is in place only under Republican presidents. To close this loophole, the policy must be enacted by federal legislation. Such legislation must be carefully crafted in order to avoid leaving any new loopholes that might be exploited by abortion groups during the tenure of future Democratic presidents, especially when it comes to funding lobbying activities by abortion groups abroad.
Recent reports from Congress are not encouraging. The Mexico City Policy legislation now being considered is modeled on the Hyde amendment, which includes exceptions for rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother, even though we are talking here about support for lobbying activities by foreign organizations as opposed to federal entitlements as is the case with the Hyde amendment. It would be a tragic missed opportunity if Congress finally enacted the Mexico City Policy into law only to leave opportunities for abortion groups to exploit its weaknesses.
If any loopholes remain at all they will undermine the policy's effect. Groups that promote abortion abroad will still receive US assistance, albeit in limited circumstances and with more bureaucratic hurdles. Because funding is fungible, this will allow abortion advocates to shift their funding streams, effectively gutting the policy.
If it is serious about attaining pro-life results, as opposed to simply appearing pro-life, the Trump administration will need to find ways to effectively implement the Mexico City Policy regardless of what Congress does. The administration took a huge leap in the right direction when it reinstated an updated Mexico City Policy in January to make it applicable not only to US assistance for family planning but to all global health assistance.
This week’s announcement of “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance” cements that first step. The expansion of the policy reflects the way in which the global health portfolio of US foreign assistance has grown exponentially in the last twenty years and how abortion groups have diversified their funding streams. But that was only a beginning. The implementation of the policy must also eliminate any loopholes.
What we have seen so far is mixed. Bureaucratic inertia seems to be winning on the one hand, as the Bush era guidelines were simply dusted off and put back in place for US family planning assistance component of the policy. On the other hand, the administration’s announcement this week that the policy would apply to PEPFAR as well as retroactively to existing agreements when new funds are disbursed is extremely encouraging.
One hopes that the Bush-era guidelines will not be the template to execute the policy in the global health realm. The Bush guidelines were riddled with weaknesses and exceptions. Not only were they limited to family planning, they explicitly excepted abortion in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother. All the grief the administration was subjected to for restoring the policy in the first place will have been for naught if the Bush guidelines are the best the administration can do.
Closing Loopholes Abroad
In addition to enacting a bulletproof Mexico City Policy into law and faithfully executing it, the United States cannot remain isolated internationally if the objective of the Mexico City Policy is to be achieved. If the European Union and Nordic countries are willing to bail out the abortion industry, the Mexico City Policy’s effect will be severely limited.
Other countries must adopt their own versions of the Mexico City Policy, or a multilateral Mexico City Policy must be launched.
This is not an impossible feat. Several factors already work in favor of the pro-life cause. First, UN policy already casts abortion in a bad light, thanks to the Mexico City Policy. Second, sixty nations protect children in the womb quite comprehensively, either outlawing abortion entirely or only allowing it if a mother would risk her own life by carrying a pregnancy to term, according to the Global Life Campaign. That is a whopping 30 percent of United Nations member states. With the right motivation, these countries would not only support the Mexico City Policy—they would support keeping abortion out of UN policy altogether.
The US State Department must diligently work to achieve this goal. It should be a top priority, as this is about protecting the most vulnerable and innocent among us by ensuring the endurance of the pro-life cause internationally.
One way to start would be to invite other donor countries, no matter how small, to join the United States in stopping any of their foreign assistance from subsidizing abortion groups. Countries such as Poland, Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Chile, as well as Arab countries, could probably be brought on board. And countries on the receiving end of US foreign assistance might be asked to join a multilateral effort, including powerful allies such as Egypt, Nigeria, and the Philippines.
Similarly, the State Department could partner with religious leaders and organizations such as Caritas, World Vision, and the Community of St. Egidio, as well as mainstream pro-life groups such as the Heritage Foundation, Family Research Council, Human Life International, National Right to Life, Live Action, my own organization C-Fam, and many others, to disseminate information on this initiative and give it pro-life credentials. It would be especially significant if the new Vatican dicastery for development were involved. A global summit should be convened to celebrate healthcare that protects mother and child and to gather religious leaders, pro-life leaders, and politicians who can propel the pro-life cause internationally, and it should be held every year thereafter.
In the long run, only a small number of countries that promote abortion on demand will oppose the United States on such an initiative. Of the fifty-seven nations in the world that do not punish abortion on demand, only a handful actively promote abortion as an international right, and even they have to obfuscate their true intentions by resorting to euphemisms like “sexual and reproductive health” to make their agenda palatable to others.
Ronald Reagan was a visionary pro-life president. He saw the need to stop the global abortion industry and played his part in trying to silence and thwart it. But that was over thirty years ago. President Trump has an opportunity to forge his own legacy as a pro-life president. To do that, he must continue to update, reinforce, and apply the principles underlying the Mexico City Policy in a way that is consistent with Reagan’s original vision.
Stefano Gennarini is the Director of Legal Studies at the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam) in New York. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of C-Fam.