Ideological Divide Over Abortion Again Affects US Foreign Aid

Among the first executive actions at the White House this year, President Donald Trump reinstated a law that bans any U.S. aid to international organizations that support the practice of abortion.

Trump’s memorandum on the “Mexico City policy” reversed one aspect of U.S. foreign aid policy that had been in effect under former President Barack Obama. It changed the way U.S. financial assistance is distributed internationally, and most likely will affect the lives of many women in developing countries.

The “Mexico City policy” dates to 1984, when then-President Ronald Reagan declared it at a population conference in the Mexican capital. Opponents call the U.S. prohibition on aid to groups that perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning a “global gag rule.”

U.S. foreign aid practices have switched back and forth several times since 1984; aid was barred to pro-abortion-rights groups whenever a Republican president was in power, then was reinstated when a Democrat controlled the White House.

WATCH: Reaction to Trump’s ‘Global Gag Rule’

Abortion stance affects aid

The political divide between the two major U.S. political parties is based on a fundamental issue: Republicans consider abortion an assault on human life, and most pledge to resist it in every way possible; Democrats say a woman should have the right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy, for financial or personal reasons, and that the decision should not be directed by government.

The deep ideological divide over abortion affects many aspects of American politics, and certainly permeates considerations about U.S. foreign aid.

“The guiding principle for our policy,” said Melissa Israel of the conservative Heritage Foundation, “really needs to be rooted in the respect for the most important fundamental human right of all, and that’s the right to life.”

Restoring the “Mexico City policy” was expected when a Republican administration took over this year, following eight years of Democratic control of the White House. What was not expected was how vigorously Trump would expand the scope of the anti-abortion rule.

Trump policy affects $9.5 billion

He broadened the policy to affect about $9.5 billion in U.S. global health aid, said Amanda Klasing of Human Rights Watch — funds that would have been destined for programs to combat HIV/AIDS, to promote maternal and child health and to prevent childhood diseases.

Organizations working on AIDS, malaria, or maternal and child health will have to make sure that none of their programs involves so much as an abortion referral.

The Heritage Foundation’s Israel disagrees with the notion that Trump’s action has greatly expanded the effect of Republicans’ anti-abortion principles.

“We are not cutting funding for family planning services or for women’s health,” she said. “We are saying that if you want to partner with the United States, then there are some fundamental things you have to agree to as a condition to receiving these funds.”

Ban on abortion information, too  

Not-for-profit groups hoping to get U.S. funds to support their work around the world must not perform abortions or provide any information about them, even if they use their own funds, from nongovernment sources, for abortion services.

Opponents say this will have a chilling effect on women’s health.

“It means,” said Klasing of Human Rights Watch, “that when a doctor sits down with a woman, if she has a health complication and she’s entitled under her local law to access a safe abortion, that doctor cannot give her a referral, or provide her information she needs to take care of herself.”

In rural areas of developing countries, a physician often takes care of a variety of medical needs, including providing information about reproductive health. Such medical practices would be proscribed from receiving any U.S. assistance. Advocates cite research that has shown family planning services result in fewer unplanned pregnancies, fewer maternal deaths and fewer abortions.

56 million abortions worldwide each year

The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 56 million abortions take place every year worldwide. More than half of those are in developing countries.

“Trump’s global gag rule will have a direct and devastating effect in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa in several ways,” said Liza Muringo Kimbo, the director in Kenya for Ipas Africa Alliance, a nonprofit group whose principal goal is advocating for safe abortion and reforming laws that harm women.

The current U.S. policy “will lead to more unwanted pregnancies,” Muringo Kimbo said. “It will lead to more unsafe abortions, increased deaths of women and young women, and even increased numbers of newborn deaths.”

Muringo Kimbo noted that her predictions have been borne out in the past, whenever a Republican administration in Washington reinstated the “Mexico City policy.”

Other countries have begun their own initiatives to counter the impact of U.S. anti-abortion policies. The Dutch have created the “She Decides Initiative,” and in Britain, an upcoming conference, “Family Planning 2020,” will try to bring together donor and recipient countries.

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