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On Thursday, President Biden issued a “Memorandum on Protecting Women’s Health at Home and Abroad.” The order overturns the “Mexico City Policy” and allows federal funds to be used to pay for abortions.

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. 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. (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 policy been in effect?

The Mexico City Policy has been in effect for 21 of the past 36 years and has been instated, rescinded, and reinstated by presidential administrations along partisan lines.

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 When President Clinton took office in 1993, he rescinded the policy on January 22, the 21st anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

President George W. Bush reinstated the policy on January 22, 2001, and President Obama rescinded it again on January 23, 2009. President Trump reinstated it in 2017.

To whom does the policy apply?

When in effect, the policy has applied to foreign NGOs as a condition for receiving U.S. family planning support. The language of the grant application typically states, “The recipient agrees that it will not, during the term of this award, perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in foreign countries or provide financial support to any other foreign nongovernmental organization that conducts such activities.”

What activities did it prohibit?

When in effect, the policy prohibits foreign NGOs that receive U.S. family planning assistance from using funds from any source—including non-U.S. funds—to “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning.”

In addition to providing abortions with non-U.S. funds, restricted activities include:

  • providing advice and information about and offering referral for abortion—where legal—among the full range of family planning options
  • promoting changes in a country’s laws or policies related to abortion as a method of family planning (i.e., engaging in lobbying)
  • conducting public information campaigns about abortion as a method of family planning

Does the policy restrict direct U.S. funding for abortion overseas?

U.S. funding for abortion is already restricted and remains restricted under several provisions of the law. U.S. law already prohibits the use of U.S. aid:

  • to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortion (the Helms Amendment, 1973, to the Foreign Assistance Act)
  • for biomedical research related to methods of or the performance of abortion as a means of family planning (the Biden Amendment, 1981, to the Foreign Assistance Act)
  • to lobby for or against abortion (the Siljander Amendment, first included in annual appropriations in 1981 and included each year thereafter)
  • to use U.S. aid to fund any organization or program, as determined by the president, that supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization (the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which passed in 1985 and is now included in annual appropriations)

Why is the policy needed?

When the policy is not in place (as under Presidents 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 funds for performing abortions. (As long as abortions are not directly paid for by federal funds, the abortion-promoting agency is not in violation of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.)

When the policy is in place, abortion providers are not only hindered in their promotion efforts, but they are also less likely to operate in foreign countries. 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.

President Biden’s executive order forces pro-life Americans to fund programs that violate their conscience.

“Our government and its leaders not only have moral obligations to uphold justice, protect conscience rights, and defend life, but also a responsibility to pursue common sense fiscal policies,” says Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, policy director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“In rescinding the Mexico City Policy, President Biden and the administration have forsaken those obligations. Even worse, they have done so in service to the abortion industry’s international business interests. One lobby’s interests are not worth violating the consciences of millions of Americans.”