It was five years ago Sunday that President Bush re-enacted a policy that put restrictions on foreign NGOs receiving US family planning funds. Commonly known as the Mexico City Policy, critics call it the Global Gag Rule. While abortion is at the center of the policy, it has much broader implications.
President Reagan first enacted the policy in 1984, after the International Population Conference in Mexico City. It mandates that no US international family planning funds can be provided to foreign nongovernmental organizations that use funding from any source to perform abortions, except in cases of rape or incest or when there’s a threat to a woman’s life. NGOs accepting US funds also cannot provide counseling or referral for abortions or lobby to make abortion legal.
President Clinton ended the policy, but it was put back into effect when President George W. Bush took office in 2001.
Wendy Turnbull, senior policy and research associate at Population Action International, calls it a global gag rule. She says it imposes US policy and ideology on others. She says it blocks groups from even using their own funds for abortions.
“Where’s the evidence that this has reduced abortion. In our view what we’ve seen in the field is that it reduces access to quality family planning services,” she says.
If NGOs refuse the US funds, they can be hard-pressed to stay open. For example in Kenya, Turnbull says since the policy’s reenactment, eight family planning clinics have closed and the country’s largest family planning providers are running short of contraceptives.
She calls the policy unnecessary. A 1973 law, the Helms Amendment, already makes it illegal to pay or advocate for abortion with federal funds either in the United States or abroad.
She says, “To ban what groups can do with their own money is taking it a step too far and it’s not very democratic.”
Among those defending the Mexico City Policy is Pia de Solenni, director of life and women’s issues at the Washington-based Family Research Council. She says many women in developing countries welcome the US policy.
“We’re in contact with a large number of people who are non-profits NGOs or just independent citizens. And they’re glad just to see the focus taken off the whole abortion, even family planning, agenda. I mean most of these are more interested in issues of development,” she says.
De Solenni says often many clinics don’t have the tools or information they really need to help women.
“I mean we’ve got people that have come and they say look, I had a women come to me. She has a child who’s dehydrated, right? I go to a clinic. The clinic can’t even tell me the proportion of sugar and water and salt to create a hydration for the baby, but they have tons of contraceptives,” she says.
Wendy Turnbull of Population Action International says the United States provides hundreds of millions of dollars in international family planning funds. But she says the aid goes well beyond the simple financial aspects, and there are consequences when NGOs refuse to accept the US money with strings attached.
She says, “The US also provides donated contraceptives. And it provides a lot of technical assistance to NGOs in the form of helping them set up proper accounting procedures, training their medical and nursing staff on the latest technologies and how to do thorough informed consenting and counseling. Those too are lost if you refuse the gag rule.”
The Family Research Council’s de Solenni says the Mexico City Policy does not place an undue burden on foreign NGOs.
“The money’s still there, right? So, it’s not that it can’t be spent at all. It just can’t be spent on these particular tactics. It has to be spent on something that’s more constructive and essentially more holistic for these countries, like education, development, HIV/AIDS awareness and so forth,” she says.
De Solenni says the policy actually respects local customs and traditions.
“I find it very offensive that we have activist groups coming essentially from sophisticated urban areas in the United States going to developing countries and telling women, no, you don’t know what you want. What you really want is no children or 1.7 children or an abortion,” she says.
Turnbull disagrees and believes it does impose ideology. She wants others to step in and replace US aid, such as the British and the Dutch.
“They can come in and help support these NGOs and keep them going. It may be time for some of the other donors to take a leadership role around family planning and reproductive health,” she says.
The Mexico City Policy will most likely be in effect at least another three years. Whether it continues or is suspended again may depend on the 2008 presidential election.