President Trump has issued an executive order that prohibits foreign aid to any health organization that provides abortion, discusses abortion, or advocates for women’s right to abortion. This action is actually a reinstatement of a rule first introduced by President Reagan in 1984. Since then, Democratic presidents have cancelled it, and Republican presidents have revived it. Critics refer to it as the “gag rule.”
On the surface, the logic of the rule seems simple. If you are against abortions, then you should also be against financing organizations that have anything to do with them. The truth is much more complicated and suggests that the rule will have effects opposite to what is intended. Consider these facts:
- Many major organizations promoting women’s health, such as International Planned Parenthood, will lose funding because they provide some abortion counseling
- Activities related to abortion are often a very small part of what such organizations do, and those activities must already be supported by other sources of funding, by US law
- Most health organizations working in poorer countries devote far more of their resources to fighting diseases and improving women’s access to contraception
- Access to contraception reduces the unwanted pregnancies that are the main reason for abortions!
When the gag rule has been in effect in the past, organizations that have lost funding have closed women’s health clinics and reduced the number of women receiving contraceptive assistance. According to the NY Times, “A study of 20 sub-Saharan African countries by Stanford University researchers found that in countries that relied heavily on funding from the United States for reproductive health services, abortion rates rose when the Reagan-era policy was in effect.”
The ill effects don’t end there. By promoting safe sex, the same organizations play a major role in reducing the spread of AIDS. Cutting off foreign aid will impede those efforts as well.
The most charitable thing I can say about this policy is that it is a well-intentioned but overzealous and poorly thought-out attempt at reducing abortions. However, I’m not so sure it is even well-intentioned. This policy has been debated and researched long enough for its ineffectiveness to be known. If Republicans persist in pursuing it, that suggests that the real motive is simply to score points with religious conservatives here at home, without regard for the consequences for real women around the world. Now we also have a president who not only changed his position on abortion to help gain the Republican nomination, but is obsessed with “America first” and has far less interest in global human rights or global well-being than his predecessor or his Democratic opponent. I doubt if he will lose any sleep over cutting off assistance to international health initiatives.