Policies promoting family planning once had broad support from both Democrats and Republicans
Once, protecting the environment had bipartisan support. Similarly, after World War II, U.S. elites generally agreed that the United States should work to curb population growth worldwide.
That’s because as the Cold War began, they worried that if populations in underdeveloped parts of the world expanded too quickly, that would hurt economic development, destabilizing these regions and threatening U.S. national security. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 State of the Union address warned of an “explosion in world population” and a “growing scarcity in world resources.” A few years later, according to author Michelle Goldberg, Republican President Richard Nixon made slowing population growth a higher priority than any previous president before him. Others pushed the United States to get involved in curbing births globally as well, including John D. Rockefeller III, who in 1952 helped found the Population Council and, through the Rockefeller Foundation, funded numerous studies of world population growth.
However, as early as 1960, Democratic President John F. Kennedy cautioned the U.S. against getting too involved in promoting family planning, suggesting that it wouldn’t look good if the United States appeared to “advocate limitation of the black, or brown, or yellow peoples whose population is increasing no faster than the United States.” Some American groups, notably American Catholics, always opposed U.S. support for international family planning. But many Republicans supported Planned Parenthood.
Population growth became a partisan issue in the 1970s — and has stayed that way
Until Ronald Reagan announced the Mexico City Policy in 1984, the United States was not merely a global leader in international family planning, but the global leader. By then, the United States had become the architect of much of today’s family planning infrastructure and had been a key mover in founding the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in 1969.
So what broke that consensus? Several factors combined to make the change. Internationally, Cold War tensions eased with detente. And as birthrates began falling around the globe, Republicans no longer felt compelled to stop other countries’ population growth to protect U.S. national security. At the same time, groups were beginning to expose the Chinese government’s coercive abortion and sterilization as part of its one-child policy, under which most Chinese citizens could have only one child per couple. Information that UNFPA had helped support those forcible measures came to light before the 1984 international population conference in Mexico City. The U.N. and UNFPA came under fire for awarding the first United Nations Population Award jointly to Xinzhong Qian, who led the most coercive phase of China’s one-child policy, and Indira Gandhi, who forcibly sterilized millions of Indians.
Meanwhile, the cultural and religious right became more prominent in U.S. politics during the 1970s. Although its agenda was broad, it was united against the idea that people worldwide had to be persuaded to have fewer children. The New Right made both social and economic arguments, including promoting the idea that population growth would level as development increased and government intervention was unnecessary. The New Right backed Reagan, pushing him to focus on ending not just abortion, but also limiting birth control and sex education. All this put them directly in opposition to anti-population growth environmentalists of the day.
By the early 1980s, social conservatives began to lobby the executive branch to defund UNFPA. Lobbyists made convincing arguments that Reagan’s reelection chances would be greater if he broke with the establishment and supported the antiabortion movement’s campaign against family planning worldwide with an announcement at the second International Conference on Population in Mexico City from Aug. 6-14, 1984. Organized by the U.N., the conference was scheduled to take place just weeks before the 1984 Republican National Convention.
Their efforts worked. At the conference, Reagan abandoned established U.S. foreign policy. He called population growth a “neutral phenomenon” and stated that U.S. policy in the 1960s and 70s that aimed to limit that growth was an “overreaction.” Before the policy, there were legislative restrictions on U.S. funding for abortions internationally; NGOs had to keep U.S. funds segregated but could use non-U. S. funds for some voluntary abortion-related activities. Under the new policy, however, segregated funds were no longer enough. By bypassing Congress and going straight to the executive, antiabortion groups got what they wanted in the first place: In response to Reagan’s announcement, Congress enacted the Kemp-Kasten Amendment in 1985 to withhold U.S. funding for UNFPA.
Reagan may have been the first Republican president to restrict U.S. funds for any foreign group advising women that abortion might be an option under the Mexico City Policy. But each of his Republican successors has followed suit. Starting with Bill Clinton, then Barack Obama, and now Joe Biden, Democrats then rescind the policy to increase what reproductive rights groups and their supporters frame as an issue of women’s access to health care.
The ping-pong pattern of “rescind then reinstate” for the Mexico City Policy will continue
In the decades since the Mexico City Policy was first imposed, Americans have only grown more partisan. Polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center shows 82 percent of Democrats or those who lean Democratic feel abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 62 percent of Republicans or those who lean Republican think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
These intractable views mean we can expect that each time a different party takes the presidency, the U.S. position on the Mexico City Policy will flip.