In 1984 the Mexico City Policy, or ‘global gag rule’, was enacted by the United States, restricting federal funds to international family planning institutions that provide advice and counselling on abortion. Since then, this policy has been repealed and reinstated several times – most recently being reinstated by President Donald Trump.  Dr Laura J Shepherd discusses the global impact of the Mexico City Policy and questions its legitimacy under the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security Agenda. 

By Fibonacci Blue [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr  

On Monday 23 January 2017, Donald Trump, in his capacity as President of the United States of America, signed a ‘Presidential Memorandum regarding the Mexico City Policy’. The ‘Mexico City Policy’ institutes a ban on federal funding flowing to international family planning institutions that offer, among other services, advice and counselling on abortion. The relevant section of policy reads:

None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any amendment made by this Act may be made available to any foreign nongovernmental organization that promotes or performs abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term.

This policy, also widely known as the ‘global gag rule’ because it effectively ‘gags’ nongovernmental organisations that provide family planning advice and birth control, was introduced under the Reagan administration in 1984. It has been repealed and reinstated several times since first approval: rescinded by Clinton; reinstated by Bush; knocked back by Obama on his third day in office; and now revived by Trump in its strongest form yet.

Many critics of Trump’s revival of the global gag rule point out that the policy will adversely affect the health of women and girls, and even question its constitutionality. Importantly, though, these critics have overlooked the significance of the policy in the context of the USA’s international legal obligations under the Women, Peace and Security agenda – particularly regarding its stated aims on the protection of women’s rights and bodies – and the implications for the permanent seat on the UN Security Council that the USA has occupied since the creation of the United Nations in 1945.

Historically, the gag rule has been enforced as a condition of US funding relating to family planning. Trump’s Memorandum, however, explicitly states that the gag rule ‘extends … to global health assistance furnished by all departments or agencies’. In practice, this means that rather than the effects being quarantined to $600 million US aid – which would be devastating in itself – ‘the global gag rule will affect $9.5 billion’ and therefore affect the lives of many more millions of women and girls.

There have been questions raised about the efficacy of the global gag rule in preventing abortions, because of its impact on counselling and the provision of family planning alternatives. One study notes that ‘if women consider abortion as a way to prevent unwanted births, then policies curtailing the activities of organizations that provide modern contraceptives may inadvertently lead to an increase in the abortion rate’.

Further, critics have argued that the Mexico City Policy no longer has a foundation in the constitutional law of the United States. This is the first time the policy has been activated since a 2013 Supreme Court finding noted that conditionality relating to the activities undertaken by healthcare providers (including those that rely on US aid funding as part of their revenue stream) ‘violates the First Amendment’ when they can reasonably demonstrate that they are supporting such activities ‘on their own time and dime’. In lay terms, this simply means that nongovernmental organisations which receive US aid funding cannot be told to limit the presentation of family planning options as this is deemed to interfere with their right to freedom of speech. In targeting ‘global health assistance’ programs across the board, ‘the global gag rule reaches beyond the scope of the government-funded programs to suppress independently funded speech’.

The gag rule perpetuates the notion that a woman’s body is not her own. This has, of course, long been the case. The gag rule ‘stinks of neocolonialism’ in international development policy, reinforcing the idea that conservative views from a vocal political minority in the United States of America should be central to considerations about reproductive health care half a world away, in a manner reminiscent of the imposition of social norms and practices during the colonial era.

There is no doubt that the Mexico City Policy will see smaller healthcare providers close their doors on the communities that so desperately need their services, and there is no doubt that the health of women and girls will be adversely affected by the policy’s reintroduction. Limiting access to birth control means ‘more unintended pregnancies’, which in turn means an increase in unsafe, often deadly, abortions.

Larger organisations, such as Marie Stopes International and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), have indicated that they will not comply with the gag rule. The IPPF released a statement declaring that the organization ‘will not sign a policy that denies human rights and puts the lives of women at risk’. As a consequence, however, these organisations will see their funding dramatically reduced, with Marie Stopes International standing to lose approximately $30 million per year in US government funding and IPPF losing $100 million.

Two days after the Memorandum was signed, the Dutch international development minister, Lilianne Ploumen, announced that the Netherlands would launch a fund to make up some of the shortfall that will affect heathcare service providers that do not comply with the policy. The Dutch government has committed US$10 million to the ‘international safe abortion fund’, and up to 20 other countries are involved at this stage. Even with this fund in place, healthcare providers will struggle to meet the needs of their communities with seriously diminished resources.

The broader context and criticisms outlined above are important, but they overlook a dimension of the policy that is also of great significance, related to the international legal obligations that the United States has under the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

The UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda comprises of a suite of Security Council resolutions, all of which are binding under international law, dating back to the adoption of the first resolution (UNSCR 1325) in 2000. The many provisions and principles of the WPS agenda are aimed at preventing violence, ensuring the equal participation of women in peace and security governance, and the protection of women’s rights and bodies. It is this latter that links directly to the global gag rule.

UNSCR 2122, adopted unananimously in 2013, includes in its Preamble the recognition by the UN Security Council of:

…the importance of Member States and United Nations entities seeking to ensure humanitarian aid and funding includes provision for the full range of medical, legal, psychosocial and livelihood services to women affected by armed conflict and post-conflict situations, and noting the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination.

It is clear that the global gag rule directly contravenes this statement, by limiting the provision of ‘medical, legal, psychosiocial and livelihood services to women’ and preventing ‘access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services’. Many of the countries in which US aid is needed most, and where that money can do the most good, are affected by conflict in some way, which means that the provisions of UNSCR 2122 are in tension with the global gag rule.

The United States of America is a permanent member of the Security Council, and pen-holder on resolutions that relate to sexual violence in conflict. The global gag rule fundamentally undermines the commitment by the USA to the provisions and principles of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, which has historically enjoyed bipartisan support in the domestic political context.

The resolutions in the architecture of the Women, Peace and Security agenda are generally described as binding but not seen as enforceable. But the willingness of the Trump administration to ignore these multilateral commitments, which have the aim of improving the lives of women in the most desperate of circumstances, demonstrates a worrying lack of consideration of international legal frameworks – or, worse, a lack of knowledge about the existing commitments that the United States has under international law.

It poses a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the United States’ permanent seat on the UN Security Council if the Trump administration continues to undermine the principles on which the Council has previously agreed. Trump should be held accountable by the international community for failing to respect the international legal framework that the United States had a hand in crafting. The extent to which the global gag rule directly contradicts the provisions in UNSCR 2122 must be recognized and challenged within the US and beyond.


About the author

Laura J. Shepherd  is Associate Professor of International Relations at UNSW Australia and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security. In addition to very many scholarly contributions on gendered representations of security and violence, often but not exclusively related to the WPS agenda, Laura is also a member of the Steering Group of the Australian Civil Society Coalition on Women,  Peace and Security which was formed in 2012 to champion the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda in Australia.

She can be found on Twitter as @drljshepherd.