by Aziza Ahmed, Professor of Law at Northeastern University School of Law
The United States has long been the largest bi-lateral donor in family planning assistance. Amongst other health services, this funding is dedicated to promoting reproductive health services, providing modern forms of contraception and responding to needs in maternal health care. In 1984, at the International Conference on Population in Mexico City, then President Ronald Regan announced the Mexico City Policy or what has come to be known as the “Global Gag Rule.” The policy mandated that United States family planning funding could not be used to “perform or actively promote abortions as a method of family planning.” The Mexico City Policy added restrictions to the Helms Amendment passed in 1973 which prohibits United States Foreign Assistance from paying for “the performance of abortions as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” The Helms Amendment, however, only applied to U.S. government money – non-U.S. funding could be utilized to provide abortion related services. The Mexico City Policy goes much further: mandating that U.S. government funds would not be given to non-governmental organizations who provide abortion related services with their own funding or funding from other sources. In other words, organizations receiving U.S. money would have to choose whether to refuse U.S. funds (risking closure) or turn away women needing abortion related services. In announcing the Mexico City Policy, Reagan further ensconced U.S. family planning assistance in domestic abortion politics and policy, placing the lives and health of people residing in countries where U.S. aid supplemented health services on reproductive health at significant risk.
Since its inception, each Republican Administration has reinstated the rule while each Democratic administration (with some exception) has stopped its application to U.S. foreign assistance. Each time the policy is renewed or revoked days after the change in administration – making the Mexico City Policy a way to cater to the political base of the newly elected party. There has been subtle acknowledgement even from Republicans that the Mexico City Policy has a negative impact on health programming. The George W. Bush administration, for example, which initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a multi-billion dollar initiative aimed at the prevention and treatment of HIV, limited the application of the Mexico City Policy to HIV/AIDS money despite the conservative anti-choice rhetoric of the party.