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Does Trump’s Mexico City policy ban funds to groups that ‘even mention’ abortion?

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

MYTH: Trump bans taxpayer $ for abortion overseas.
FACT: #GlobalGagRule kills funding for ANY health center that even *mentions* abortion.
— NARAL Pro-Choice America, post on Twitter, Jan. 23, 2017

On Jan. 23, 2017, President Trump signed a memo reinstating a Reagan-era policy that bans U.S. aid to international health groups that promote abortions. Supporters of the policy call it the Mexico City policy, named after the city in which the law was first announced. Opponents call it the “global gag rule,” for reasons we will explore in this fact check.

One talking point caught our eye following the announcement of this policy change. NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organization that supports abortion rights and opposes the policy, tweeted that the policy “kills funding for ANY health center that even *mentions* abortion.” The organization did not respond to our requests for clarification.

Is this claim accurate?

The Facts

The Mexico City policy took effect in 1985 under President Ronald Reagan, and it has been rescinded (by Democratic presidents) and restored (by Republican ones) ever since. President Trump’s memorandum revokes President Barack Obama’s January 2009 memo rescinding the policy. It reinstates President George W. Bush’s January 2001 memorandum, which restored the policy after President Bill Clinton revoked it in January 1993.

Under this policy, foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive family planning assistance from the United States cannot “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning” even with money that does not come from the United States. The use of U.S. aid to pay for abortions overseas is prohibited, under several laws that were in place even before the Mexico City policy.

Yet those who oppose abortion rights often characterize this policy as a protection against taxpayer funds being used to pay for or actively promote abortion overseas. (Similar language is included in the memos from Trump and Bush.) That is why NARAL Pro-Choice America and other advocates of abortion rights call it a “myth” that Trump’s policy “bans taxpayer $ for abortion overseas.”

The Washington Post reported that poor women in Africa will be most affected by the funding cuts, as Africa is home to two-thirds of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s family-planning priority countries.

“Performing” abortions is self-explanatory, but what constitutes “actively promoting” abortion as a family planning method? Per USAID’s 2007 handbook, an organization is “actively promoting” abortion when it commits resources “to increase the availability or use of abortion” as a method of family planning. Abortion-rights advocates call it a “global gag rule,” since it limits the discussion of abortion in counseling sessions, with some exceptions.

This includes:

  • Providing advice and information about the benefits and availability of abortion for family planning, even if abortion is legal in the country.
  • Lobbying a foreign government about abortion as a method of family planning.
  • Conducting a public information campaign about abortion as a method of family planning.

However, “actively promoting” does not include:

  • Referrals for abortion for pregnancies that resulted from rape, incest or that endanger the life of the mother.
  • Treatment of illnesses or injuries after women have already received an abortion, legally or illegally.
  • Responding to a question about obtaining a safe, legal abortion if a pregnant woman has already decided to have a legal abortion.

That means organizations can discuss abortion if it is in the context of those three exceptions — despite NARAL Pro-Choice America’s claim that it kills funding for any group that “even mentions abortions.”

Of course, these were provisions under Bush. There is no indication yet how much Trump’s actual policy will mirror the previous version.

The Trump administration has indicated it will expand the scope of the prior policy, which previously applied to family planning assistance funds through USAID and the U.S. Department of State. Trump’s memo extended the policy to all U.S. global health assistance (not just family planning), by all departments or agencies.

Moreover, Trump plans to reduce global aid overall. Draft executive orders obtained by the New York Times showed a termination of funding “for any United Nations agency or other international body that meets any one of several criteria” — including organizations that support programs that fund abortions.

In general, the executive branch has broad discretion over foreign affairs and foreign aid. So in theory, Trump could decide to expand the policy to strip the previous exclusions (i.e., the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother) or even ban an organization that “even mentions abortion.”

But until the regulation is written and entered into the Federal Register, it would be pure conjecture to say how the policy will change under Trump.

The Pinocchio Test

NARAL Pro-Choice America claimed that Trump’s restoration of the Mexico City policy, which it calls a “global gag rule,” “kills funding for ANY health center that even mentions abortion.”

Previous iterations of the policy did not ban funding to any organization that “even mentions” abortion. The provisions made some exceptions to discussions of abortions — for example, organizations can treat women who have post-abortion illnesses or injuries, and can make referrals for women seeking abortions for pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest, or that threaten the life of the mother. So if the policy under Trump contains the same exceptions, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s claim would deserve at least two Pinocchios.

However, the memo calling for a restoration of this policy is just a few days old, and there is no draft regulation available for the public yet. Trump’s administration has broad authority to set the terms of foreign assistance — and has already indicated it will be restricting foreign aid. So we will issue a Verdict Pending for this rating, until further information becomes available. At that point, we will update this fact check with a ruling.

Verdict Pending

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