Two days after the Women’s March, the new president of the Unites States signed an executive order reinstating the Mexico City Policy, popularly known as the “Global Gag Rule”. The moment was captured in an emblematic photo: Donald Trump – surrounded by men – signing an order that so significantly affects the lives of women around the world, in what many described on social media as a picture of patriarchy.
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) January 23, 2017
This group just made it more difficult for women to get access to health care worldwide. You tell me what’s wrong with this picture. pic.twitter.com/8UQFWg8qO3
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 23, 2017
But what exactly is this controversial policy, and what are its implications for women, girls and beyond around the world?
1) The policy’s origins
This policy is a U.S. government foreign policy. It was not originally created by Trump, simply reinstated by him. It was created by the Reagan administration in 1984 and first announced at the International Conference on Population and Development, which took place in Mexico City (hence the name “Mexico City Policy”). Since then, the policy has been in effect during every Republican president’s term, but not in effect during Democrat presidencies (with the exception of a temporary imposition of the policy during Clinton’s presidency as shown in the table below).
2) What it says
The original text of the policy states that “the United States will no longer contribute to […] nongovernmental organizations which perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations.”
When this policy is in effect, international NGOs that receive U.S. government funding are prohibited from performing, promoting, or providing information on “abortion as a method of family planning”.
The policy does provide an exception: performing, promoting, or providing information on abortion in the cases where the pregnancy poses a risk to the woman’s life, or where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest is not prohibited. But according to CHANGE (Center for Health and Gender Equity), it is unclear if these exceptions have actually been observed and if services were offered in those cases.
3) Its implications
Many NGOs that will be affected by this policy have been speaking up about its implications on the work they do and the services they provide. 138 organizations have joined Planned Parenthood in a joint statement opposing the policy.
The implications go beyond abortion and women’s health. It could negatively impact serious health issues around the world, since many NGOs that provide services for issues such as Zika and HIV/AIDS would be affected. Melinda Gates has expressed her concern for the way this rule could be implemented by the Trump administration, saying it could affect clinics that provide lifesaving HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis drugs. Beyond that, the policy could have negative impacts on humanitarian aid: after the Nepal earthquake in 2015, Marie Stopes International United States (which under the policy would be disqualified from receiving U.S. aid) was able to provide a variety of much needed women’s health services such as contraceptive implants and safe-deliver kits.
Governments have joined NGOs in expressing concerns about the policy. Several countries including Belgium, Canada and Sweden have joined in support of the Netherlands’s initiative to raise money “to help women access abortion services”, saying Trump’s ‘global gag rule’ would “cause a funding shortfall of $600 million over the next four years”.
The flaw of the policy is that, as with most policies and laws that attempt to stop abortions, it won’t stop abortions. It will instead mean that women will be more likely to access abortion through unsafe and unhealthy ways, risking their health and lives. A 2011 World Health Organization study found that, after President George W. Bush reenacted the policy in 2000, abortion rates increased significantly in sub-Saharan African countries.
At the moment, there’s uncertainty about the specific instructions government agencies and NGOs would have to follow. What is known is that comprehensive access to information about sexual and reproductive health is essential for women’s lives around the world, and that whatever measures are created to deter that will be – quite literally – putting lives at risk.
The policy means NGOs will struggle to keep providing lifesaving services, but it’s clear that they won’t stop doing their work. Sexual and reproductive rights may have struggled under this policy in the past, and will likely do so again. But they are still human rights, and they will be fought for.