Suffocating from the Global Gag Rule, America’s anti-abortion aid policy

By Joshua Kenyon

The Mexico City Policy, more commonly known as the Global Gag Rule, is America’s policy of refusing to fund international non-governmental organizations that facilitate abortion. This includes everything from operating abortion clinics, to providing abortion-related counselling. During his first week in office in 2017, President Trump reinstated and expanded on the Global Gag Rule, originally launched by the Reagan administration in 1984. With Trump expanding the policy to cover a total of $8.8bn of available US global health assistance, the impact on the developing world has been devastating. To accommodate for such a large shortfall, the rest of the world must step up their commitments to ensure universal access to safe, affordable family planning.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Why the policy is problematic

To receive USAID, NGOs must declare that they will not use any of their funds to perform, lobby or educate on abortion. In defiance, many NGOs worldwide have refused to comply with these conditions, and have subsequently forfeited US assistance. Many developing countries, however, rely heavily on international funding for family planning services. It has been estimated that 80% of contraceptives in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are supplied by international assistance. In Ghana, one study found that while the policy was in place under the Bush administration in the early 2000s, organisations such as Marie Stopes lost funding, leading to closures of clinics and a reduction in contraceptive supply. Following a 10% decrease in contraceptives, unwanted pregnancies rose significantly among rural women. Although not all women in Ghana can afford to undergo an abortion, among the women considered “less poor” by the study, abortion rates in fact grew higher following the policy’s implementation, with many of these likely to have been unsafe.

When women and girls lack access to safe abortion procedures, many turn to those administered without proper medical training or facilities. In Africa and South America, where 75% of abortions are deemed unsafe, death, disability and infertility are common but preventable consequences. The World Health Organization estimates that, every year, 22,000 women die from complications related to unsafe abortion.

Not only does it improve health outcomes, but access to family planning is also crucial for wider development, including by allowing girls to stay in education rather than face motherhood at an early age. This then allows for a more productive and educated labour force, leading to a better standard of living within the country. A trademark of prosperous countries is the freedom of women to choose when they start a family, giving them greater autonomy over their lives and opportunities. By defunding family planning services, however, America’s policy is restricting that freedom for many women and girls in the developing world.

Fighting back

Despite the approach of the US, there are signs of tenacity from the rest of the world. The UK, for example, has committed annual support of £225 million to global family planning services, including providing 20 million women worldwide with essential contraceptives. The UK has consistently shown their commitment, announcing a £600 million package in part dedicated to the UN Population Fund that will last from 2020 to 2025. In addition to the UK, a worldwide effort is ensuing. 62 countries have made commitments to Family Planning 2020, a global partnership that has expanded the supply of contraceptives in their 69 ‘focus countries’ by 53 million women since its launch in 2012. Though the world is gradually strengthening their commitments, with 225 million women each year not having access to the contraceptives needed to prevent unwanted pregnancy, more action is still required.

Though there are many factors that could damage progress being made on this matter, it is apparent that a lot hinges on the Presidential election on the 3rd November. Donald Trump is expected to maintain or deepen the restrictions. Another 4 years of America, the largest donor of overseas health programmes, restricting global family planning aid would continue to have a devastating impact. On the other hand, Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both rescinded previous versions of this policy while in office, and Joe Biden is set to do the same. A spokesman for Biden told the Washington Post that if elected, “Biden will use executive action on his first day in office to withdraw the Mexico City ‘global gag rule’”. Whatever does happen, it is certain that the lives of millions of women around the world will be impacted.

Joshua is an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield studying Economics with Employment Experience, and has interests in economic development. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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