President Trump’s Mexico City Policy Executive Order Compounds an Already Restrictive U.S. Policy on Abortion Access Worldwide

By: Teresa Gilbert

On January 23rd, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order re-instating the Mexico City Policy, which restricts international organizations that receive U.S. funding from performing abortions, or referring to or promoting abortion services.[1] This reinstated Mexico City Policy adds on further restrictions to U.S. funding abroad for abortions: the existing Helms Amendment states that no U.S. foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for abortions.[2]  The Helms Amendment is much stricter than its domestic counterpart, the Hyde Amendment, which prevents U.S. federal funds to be used to pay for abortions domestically, but does allow funding for abortions in the cases of rape, incest, or the health of the mother.[3]  This combination of the Mexico City Policy order and the Helms amendment means  that any organization receiving U.S. foreign aid cannot perform any abortions no matter the circumstances, nor can they refer women seeking an abortion to an proper clinic.  What does this combination of policies look like in effect?

Almost three years ago in Nigeria, the extremist Islamic militant group Boko Haram kidnapped over 200 high school girls in a single day, and captured more over a year.[4]  When the Nigerian Army conducted its rescue, it found over 700 women and girls.[5]  Over 200 females were visibly pregnant.[6] Because of the Helms Amendment, United Nations Population Fund, the main health care agency dealing with the Boko Haram survivors, could not offer these rape survivors the option to terminate their pregnancies.[7]  This lack of options resulted in some of the girls seeking out illegal, unsafe abortions while others were shunned by their communities for birthing the children of the Boko Haram killers.[8]

The Helms Amendment alone does much to restrict access to abortion services worldwide because the United States is the single largest donor to women’s health programs as it prevents any organization receiving U.S. funds from performing abortion services under any circumstances.[9]  However, not all international women’s health NGOs receive U.S. funding. There are other NGOs that provide these services. Under the Mexico City Policy, if there were any nearby organizations that could provide abortions (because they did not receive U.S. funding) for the Boko Haram survivors, the UNPF would not have even been able to direct the girls seeking an abortion to such an organization. The Mexico City Policy prevents any organization receiving U.S. funding from referring women to abortion providers and the UNPF receives U.S. funding.[10]  This is why the Mexico City Policy has earned the nickname ‘The Global Gag Rule,’ because it prevents aid workers from communicating all the health options available, whether they themselves are allowed to provide the services or not.[11]

The legality of the Mexico City Policy is difficult to question: every new administration since 1984 has either repealed or reinstated this very policy (depending on the incoming administration’s party position on abortion).[12]  However by using the Helms Amendment, women’s health advocates and organizations advocated for the Obama Administration to issue an executive order interpreting the language of the Helms Amendment to include rape, incest, and health exemptions.[13]  Obama ignored these pleas, and the Trump Administration would unlikely be any more responsive.


[1] Memorandum No. 2017-01843, 82 Fed. Reg. 8,495 (Jan. 25, 2017); see Jessie Hellman, Trump Reinstates Ban on US Funding for Abortion Overseas, The Hill (Jan. 23, 2017), http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/abortion/315652-trump-signs-executive-order-reinstating-global-gag-rule-on.

[2] USAID’s Family Planning Guiding Principles and U.S. Legislative and Policy Requirements, usaid (last visited Feb. 9, 2017), https://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/global-health/family-planning/usaids-family-planning-guiding-principles-and-us.

[3] Julie Rovner, Abortion Funding Ban Has Evolved Over The Years, npr (Dec. 14, 2009), http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121402281.

[4] Laura Bassett, Instruments of Oppression, The Huffington Post, http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/kenya-abortion/ (last visited Feb. 7, 2017).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Molly Redden, Global Gag Rule Reinstated by Trump, Curbing NGO Abortion Services Abroad, The Guardian (Jan. 23, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/23/trump-abortion-gag-rule-international-ngo-funding.

[10] The Process of U.S. Funding to UNFPA Funding Timeline, Friends of unfpa, http://www.friendsofunfpa.org/netcommunity/page.aspx?pid=216 (last visited Feb. 9, 2017).

[11] Id.

[12] Anna Diamond, Trump Strikes at Abortion with a Revived Foreign-Aid Rule, The Atlantic (Jan. 23, 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/01/mexico-city-policy/514010/.

[13] Laura Bassett, Instruments of Oppression, The Huffington Post, http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/kenya-abortion/ (last visited Feb. 7, 2017).