President Obama today fulfilled a campaign promise by repealing the so-called “Mexico City policy” that prohibits U.S. funding for overseas non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide abortion as part of their services or as part of their maternal care counseling. (Hence its common name, “the global gag rule.”)
Even before it became official the move was drawing withering fire from some Catholic and pro-life advocates who saw this move as proof positive that Obama’s promise to be a “new Democrat” who wanted to find common ground on this issue was so much campaign rhetoric. Before you swallow that line, however, it’s worth checking the facts of the matter.

The 1984 policy was the brainchild of the Reagan administration and was announced at the United Nations International Conference on Population in Mexico City. (The language was negotiated by the deputy chairman of the U.S. delegation, Alan Keyes, then an Assistant Secretary of State, and later a perennial right-wing candidate in various states–he was drafted to try to beat Obama in Obama’s senate run in Illinois.)
Since then the policy has become a true political football: Bill Clinton reversed the policy as one of his first acts as president on Jan. 22, 1993, a date timed to coincide with the anniversary of Roe and the annual March for Life. Zing! Then on January 22, 2001, President George W. Bush reinstated the policy. Kapow!
Barack Obama, elected as a pro-choice candidate was under tremedous pressure to repeal the Mexico City policy on the same date: Bam! Take that, you pro-lifers! But he didn’t. He signed it late Friday afternoon, no media, no coverage, unlike other similar actions of a new president. No rubbing it in your face.
His pro-choice base isn’t happy, as witnessed by angry barbs at him from the left, but many pro-life advocates did appreciate the gesture even as they knew the policy reversal was inevitable.
“We’re thrilled,” said Ashley Horne, federal policy analyst at the conservative religious group Focus on the Family, told “All signs point to that he will probably do away with the policy at some point but we’re happy that for the time being that the Mexico City Policy is in place.” And CNS reported on negotiations between Catholic leaders and the Obama administration on the timing:

But in contacts with some Catholic leaders, representatives of the administration signaled that Obama is trying to be at least sensitive to timing, by declining to announce such a change while abortion protesters were marching in Washington and elsewhere.
Some Catholic leaders who have been in touch with Obama’s staff this week encouraged the administration to pair any such orders — which they see as a rollback of progress against abortion — with an announcement about new efforts to aid pregnant women, or otherwise help reduce demand for abortion.

That other “abortion reduction” shoe did not drop–though one is expected–and it’s unlikely that pro-lifers will hardly be mollified by a day’s delay. My colleague Steve Waldman noted the disappointment in his post today.
But it’s also a good time to ask whether the Mexico City policy is truly “pro-life,” and whether reversing it is really the “pro-abortion” move Obama’s critics contend. Could it be the other way around?
A few points to keep in mind:
One, reversing Mexico City will not mean U.S. taxpayers are funding abortions overseas. That remains against the law under the 1973 Helms Amendment. What can happen now is that U.S. money can go to groups that support health clinics, largely in the underdeveloped world, where abortion could be among their services, or they could provide information about abortion or a referral for an abortion.
Two, some might say that is a distinction without a difference, but the key distinction is that in the poorest regions of the world where health care is scarce, if it exists at all, there are no other options. A clinic will do everything, or it will do nothing at all. Especially as regards women’s health, one of the least-addressed problems in poor nations, clinics provide contraceptive and “birth spacing” advice, maternal care when women are pregnant, and deliver babies when they are due. They also treat infants and young children, many of whom would perish otherwise. And some perform abortions or tell women where they can go to get one, although that can be a life-threatening procedure not only for the fetus.
Three, so the well-documented upshot is that the Mexico City policy, when in effect, has cut off a lifeline to untold numbers of health clinics that are the sole outlet for millions of poor people–and has resulted in terrible sufferings for women and children, increased numbers of preganancies, and a greater number of abortions. A fact sheet from Third Way, which is associated with progressive religious groups like Faith in Public Life, has many of the numbers. For example:

• A joint report by the Guttmacher Institute and the United Nations Population Fund estimated that providing family planning services to the 201 million women in developing counties whose needs are unmet would prevent 52 million unintended pregnancies and 22 million abortions annually.
• The Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana provided family planning services to as many as 697,000 individuals. Their loss of funding as a result of the Mexico City policy affected the ability of 1,327 communities in Ghana to prevent unintended pregnancies and abortion.
• Over 99 percent of the estimated 536,000 women who die each year from pregnancy-related causes live in developing countries.8 If family planning needs were met for all women in the developing world who do not have access to contraception, pregnancy-related deaths would drop by 25-35 percent.
• As a result of the Mexico City policy, the Family Planning Association of Kenya (FPAK), the oldest and most established family planning NGO in Africa, was forced to close three clinics that had served an estimated 19,000 Kenyans. FPAK clinics, in addition to family planning services, provide prenatal, postnatal, and well baby care. Repealing the Mexico City policy would help save the lives of children worldwide by providing women with family planning services, enabling them to better space their pregnancies and deliver healthy children.

Other UN studies have shown the same human toll, and an article by St. John’s law professor Nina J. Crimm in the Cornell Law Journal also goes into great depth if you are looking for more. The section under “Adversities for Women,” pp. 27-28 on thr PDF, is especially on point:

Seventy percent of the world’s one billion poorest people are women. These are the women for whom “the most dangerous thing . . .[they] can do is to become pregnant.” They invariably live in developing countries where their access to health services depends exclusively or to a large extent on foreign NGOs whose programs are supported by FAA §2151b funds. In other words, these women are relegated to incomplete family planning counseling and thereby are denied full information, self determined control over their fertility,and self-dignity. They can receive neither abortion referrals nor safe abortions from these NGOs.
Their lives are endangered. Numerous statistics attest to the harm to these women. These women have a likelihood of dying from pregnancy complications at a rate more
than 500 times that of women in the United States. Even in the 61% of the world’s nations where abortions are legal, such as South Africa and Nepal which permit abortions upon a woman’s request during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, complications from unsafe abortions continue.

The testimony to the suffering on the ground, not just in statistics, also adds an indispensible human elelment to a debate that can be framed as just another black-white, right-wrong, left-right dichotomy. The Times’ columnist Nick Kristof has writtn regularly and chillingly about the gag rule’s effects and he put it as one of the first three things he’d like to see Obama repeal (along with closing Guantanamo and ending torture byt the U.S.).
Will any of this satisfy dedicated pro-lifers? Probably not. On an ethical level, they can argue that any funding of clinics that provide information on abortion (or contraception) is tantamount to “cooperation with evil,” as the phrase goes. But the reality is more complex, in that we are guilty for what we DON’T do as much as what we do. Doing nothing also condemns many to death or needless suffering. Doing something may make us complicit in another form of evil, but it may also lesen the amount and degree of that evil.
Choice is hard. Remember that before you make your own choice here.

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