Trump executive order cuts funding to NGOs that provide abortion services, information

Pro-abortion rights activists rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo by: Jordan Uhl / CC BY

In one of his first executive orders as U.S. president, Donald Trump has reinstated the “Global Gag Rule,” a policy that blocks federal funding to international nongovernmental organizations that provide abortions, services or information about them.

The measure, signed Monday, doesn’t come as much of a surprise to many observers, as the rule was first instituted by former President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and has been subject to the turnover of new administrations. George W. Bush quickly reinstated the policy in his early days in office, only to have Barack Obama rescind the order, also known as the Mexico City Policy, shortly after he took office in January 2009.

This order would restrict any U.S. aid to foreign organizations that receive outside funding for work on abortion counseling, referrals, or services. The Obama administration already upheld restrictions on funding organizations that provide abortions, except in extreme cases, such as rape. And the U.S. has not funded international abortions since 1970s, following the adoption of the Helms amendment.

Already, more than 225 million women and girls in developing countries have an unmet need for basic health services, according to FamilyPlanning2020. This reinstated policy, global health advocates warn, will place them at greater risk.  

“This isn't at all in any way, shape, or form a pro-life policy. This is a policy that puts women's lives at risk. It closes down primary health centers,” Suzanne Ehlers, the president and CEO of the international reproductive health care organization PAI, said in an interview with Devex.

“It has been proven time and time again that this shuts down the very primary health care clinics that women and their families go to in the field. This is not about access to abortion, frankly it is not about access to contraceptives and birth control… it is about wellness and wellbeing.”

The text of the Trump administration’s version of the Global Gag Rule is likely to circulate Tuesday, says Seema Jalan, executive director of the Universal Access Project and Policy, Women and Population, at the United Nations Foundation. This will offer more details on this exact plan and how it differs from previous versions.

“From what we know the last time the Global Gag Rule was in place, the poorest and most marginalized women and girls who want access to contraception will not have access to it anymore,” Jalan said. “What happened the last time around was because women lost access to contraceptives there were increases in unintended pregnancies and it actually led to more abortions, often abortions that were unsafe.”

Already, a political rebuttal to the Gag order has taken form. Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen plans to introduce bipartisan legislation on Tuesday to permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule to stop the back and forth as administrations change and safeguard women’s access to reproductive care, she said in a statement. But with Republicans in control of Congress, a fight to repeal the rule could face an uphill battle.

“President Trump's reinstatement of the global gag rule ignores decades of research, instead favoring ideological politics over women and families,” Shaheen said in a statement on Monday. “We know that when family planning services and contraceptives are easily accessible, there are fewer unplanned pregnancies, maternal deaths, and abortions. And when women have control over their reproductive health, it improves the long-term health of mothers and children and creates a lasting economic benefit.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Health and Gender Equity will be looking to congressional advocates like Shaheen to take action and push back against the gag rule. Serra Sippel, the president of CHANGE, called the gag rule "failed, it's outdated and it has no place in 2017.” She pointed to the women’s marches across the world this past weekend that collectively saw millions of people turn out for women’s rights and access to medical and reproductive health services as an example of why it has no place today.  

“This is where mobilization has to happen, and building on the momentum that we saw on Saturday,” she said.

CHANGE is among the health advocacy and research groups that will now focus on measuring this decision's impact, from funding cuts to number of women and girls who will lose out on basic health care.

“We are going to have to work as we have been with our friends and collaborators in the field who are going to begin to catalogue, if you will, the harm that this policy causes on the ground so that we can put forward facts and evidence that suggest that the Global Gag Rule does not save lives, it  does not decrease the incidence of abortion,” Ehlers said.

PAI has studied the past effects of the Global Gag Rule and found that it prevented organizations from expanding services and pushed some to shut down their services and clinics, according to research conducted in Kenya, Zambia, Ethiopia and Romania. They expect the same to occur with this reinstatement, the Washington, D.C.-based NGO said in a statement on Monday.

U.S. foreign aid is restricted by other laws and regulations, such as the Helms amendment which states that “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” Those regulations and funding restrictions are already hard to work around, and the gag rule is even more limiting, Akila Radhakrishnan, the vice president of the Global Justice Center, told Devex.

“It means that there is a serious chilling effect of women around the world having a much harder time getting abortion where they are legal under humanitarian law,” she said. “We definitely will be tracking to see how this plays out on the ground, and also are working to see how other donors can be helpful to fill this gap… the U.S. should not be able to dictate what services women get. ”

In addition, the Gag rule is counterproductive because it will likely result in an increase in abortions, said Chris Purdy, the CEO of DKT international, an organization that promotes family planning and HIV prevention.  

“The great irony in this is that you will have more women who don’t have access to family planning who are going to get pregnant and will have to go and get an abortion. So the very thing they are trying to prevent is probably going to increase,” he said.

The U.S. is the single largest funder of international family planning. This funding has helped reach more than 27 million women and couples with access to contraceptives and prevented 6 million unintended pregnancies, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Kelli Rogers and Christin Roby contributed reporting.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

This story has been updated on Jan. 23 with additional interviews on the Global Gag Rule from PAI and the UN Foundation, and also clarification on details of funding restrictions that accompany the rule.  

About the authors

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.
  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.