Explainer: U.S. expands ban on foreign aid to overseas abortion providers

March 29, 2019

What just happened?

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration is strengthening the “Mexico City policy,” which prohibits U.S. foreign aid to groups that provide or promote abortion overseas, and will be strictly enforcing another statute aimed at preventing abortions abroad.

The policy is being modified so that the U.S. will no longer financially support groups around the world that help other organizations that support or promote abortion.

“We will refuse to provide assistance to foreign NGOs that give financial support to other foreign groups in the global abortion industry,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “We will enforce a strict prohibition on backdoor funding schemes and end runs around our policy. American taxpayer dollars will not be used to underwrite abortions.”

Pompeo added that the "vast majority" of groups that partner with the U.S. have agreed to comply with the policy so far, and cast the latest decision as being rooted in compassion. "We're talking about human lives," he said.

Pompeo also said in compliance with the Siljander amendment, the U.S. would cut some assistance to the Organization of America States because at least two of its agencies are allegedly lobbying for abortion availability in the Western Hemisphere.

Commenting on the policy changes, ERLC President Russell Moore said,

“It is a national disgrace for a single penny of federal monies to be used in funding abortion. One important stopgap in this assault on the vulnerable has been the Mexico City Policy. I was pleased to see this policy reinstated by President Trump in 2017 and am thankful again to see Secretary Pompeo supplement the Mexico City Policy with additional restrictions at the State Department. What is most needed is legislation permanently ending the morally repugnant practice of federally-sponsored predation. Until we get there, though, every public official should do everything in his or her power to see that taxpayer dollars never subsidize the exploitation of the vulnerable. This is a major move in the right direction.”

What are the current restriction or legislative requirements related to foreign aid and abortion?

Since the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, Congress has enacted foreign assistance legislation placing restrictions or requirements on the federal funding of abortions and on family planning activities abroad. As the Congressional Research Service note, many of these provisions, often referred to by the name of the lawmakers that introduced them, have been included in foreign aid authorizations, appropriations, or both, and affect different types of foreign assistance.

There are currently 11 legislative restrictions relating to U.S. funding of abortion and requirements related to voluntary family planning programs abroad:

• The Helms Amendment (1973) prohibits the use of U.S. funds to perform abortions or to coerce individuals to practice abortions. Since 1980, the Helms amendment has also periodically been enacted in foreign operations appropriations measures.

• The Involuntary Sterilization Amendment (1978) is an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) specifying that U.S. foreign assistance may not fund (1) the performance of involuntary sterilizations, or (2) the coercion of involuntary sterilizations (or provide financial incentives to undergo sterilization). The provision is also repeated in annual foreign operations appropriations.

• The Peace Corps restriction (1978) states that none of the funds appropriated for the Peace Corps shall be used to pay for abortions. Under existing policy, the Peace Corps covers the cost of evacuation to a location where “medically adequate facilities” for obtaining an abortion are available and where abortions are legally permissible.

• The Biden Amendment (1981) states that U.S. funds may not be used for biomedical research related to abortion or involuntary sterilization. This amendment has also been included in foreign operations appropriations acts.

• The Siljander Amendment (1981) prohibits U.S. funds from being used to lobby for or against abortion. This amendment has also been included in foreign operations appropriations acts.

• The DeConcini Amendment (1985) specifies that the U.S will only fund family planning projects that offer a range of family planning methods and services, either directly or through referral. The provision has been included in annual foreign operations appropriations legislation since 1985.

• The Additional Provision on Involuntary Sterilization and Abortion (1985) requires that no funds made available under the FAA may be obligated for any given country or organization if the President certifies that the use of such funds violates the aforementioned Helms, Biden, or involuntary sterilization amendments.

• The Kemp-Kasten Amendment (1985) prohibits funding for any organization or program that, as determined by the President, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization. The provision has been included in annual foreign operations appropriations legislation since 1985. The Trump Administration has used this amendment to withhold funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

• The Livingston Amendment (1986) prohibits the U.S. from discriminating against organizations based on their religious or conscientious commitment to offer only “natural” family planning when awarding related grants. The provision is also repeated in annual foreign operations appropriations.

• The Leahy Amendment (1994) clarifies language in the Helms amendment, which states, “None of the funds made available … may be used to pay for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions” (emphasis added). The provision is repeated in annual foreign operations appropriations.

• The Tiahrt Amendment (1998) places requirements on voluntary family planning projects receiving assistance from USAID. Most recently, the Tiahrt amendment was included in the FY2018 State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Act.

What is the Mexico City Policy?

The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 prohibits nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive federal funds from using those funds "to pay for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning, or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions." In August 1984, President Ronald Reagan expanded this policy by executive order. At the United Nations International Conference on Population being held in Mexico City, the Reagan administration unveiled a policy statement that said:

U.S. support for family planning programs is based on respect for human life, enhancement of human dignity, and strengthening of the family. Attempts to use abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive measures in family planning must be shunned, whether exercised against families within a society or against nations within the family of man.

The statement directed the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to expand the limitation under the Foreign Assistance Act to prohibit a wide range of activities, including providing advice, counseling, or information regarding abortion, or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available.

Because it was released at the U.N. event, the directive has become known as the "Mexico City Policy," though the official name is “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance.”  (The policy is sometimes referred to by its critics as the “global gag rule” since it prohibits government funded NGOs from promoting abortion.)

When has the Mexico City Policy been in effect?

President Reagan first implemented the policy in August 1984, and it continued under President George H.W. Bush. When President Clinton took office in 1993, he rescinded the policy on January 22, the 21st anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

President George W. Bush reinstated the policy on January 22, 2001 and President Obama rescinded it again on January 23, 2009. The Trump Administration reinstated and expanded the policy to include all global health assistance.

Why is the Mexico City Policy needed?

When the policy is not in place (as under President’s Clinton and Obama), NGOs are allowed to promote abortion as a method of “family planning.” Since federal funds are “fungible,” this allows NGOS that promote and perform abortions to use taxpayer money to pay for salaries and other marketing costs to promote abortion, freeing their own funds to be used to perform abortions. As long as the abortions are not directly being paid for by federal funds, then the abortion-promoting agency is not in violation of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

When the policy is in place, though, the abortion providers are not only hindered in their promotion efforts, they are less likely to be able to operate in foreign countries. For example, when President Reagan first implemented the policy International Planned Parenthood Federation no longer qualified and immediately lost more than 20 percent of its total funding.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More