Council Commentary

U.S. Government’s Expanded Mexico City Policy Threatens Women’s Health

The Population Council has always supported the fundamental right of women and girls worldwide to exercise their full, free and informed choice about if, when, and how many children to have. The U.S. Government’s reinstated Mexico City Policy, often referred to as the “Global Gag Rule,” represents a step back in the global progress to protect women’s rights and reduce maternal deaths and unintended pregnancies. 

Since 1973, the Helms Amendment has prohibited the use of U.S. foreign assistance for the performance of abortion “as a method of family planning.” The Mexico City Policy, though, restricts access even further. It denies foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. government global health assistance the right to use their own, non-U.S. funds to provide information, referrals, or services for safe, legal abortion, or to advocate for the legalization of abortion.

Historically, the Mexico City Policy has been instated under Republican administrations and repealed under Democratic administrations. When last in effect, the Mexico City Policy resulted in cutbacks in family planning funding and technical support for foreign NGOs unless they were willing to comply with its restrictions on free speech and informed consent. Organizations that are registered as U.S. NGOs, like the Population Council, are not directly subject to the Policy’s restrictions, but are prevented from working with valuable international partners who do not sign onto its provisions. At minimum, this requires the renegotiation of contracts and will cause delays and disruptions to ongoing life-saving projects.

President Trump’s recent Memorandum reinstating the Mexico City Policy includes a directive for dramatic expansion. Under previous Republican administrations, the Mexico City Policy affected U.S. government family planning assistance. Now, the policy has been broadened to include all U.S. global health assistance—an estimated magnitude of 15 times greater, according to an analysis by Population Action International (PAI). It will likely take some time for the U.S. Government to provide full clarity about the interpretation and application of this new policy language.

There is no evidence the Mexico City Policy reduces the incidence of abortion and there is in fact research showing it has the opposite effect and is associated with increased rates of induced abortion. In addition to reducing access to family planning services, the Policy has been shown to reduce access to a range of additional critical health services, such as obstetric care, HIV testing, and malaria treatment. This more expansive version has the potential to more significantly undermine global health and development efforts.

“The Mexico City Policy will have a negative effect on the lives of millions of girls, women and families around the world and will impede countless global health projects and programs,” said Julia Bunting, Population Council president. “Together, we must continue to advocate for evidence-informed policies and proven interventions that improve health and protect human rights.”

The Population Council is one of 138 organizations that have signed a coalition statement opposing the Mexico City Policy. The United States has been and must continue to be a leader when it comes to supporting women’s health and rights, gender equality, and free speech around the world.