Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why Trump's Anti-Abortion Foreign Aid Executive Order Should Make Pro-Lifers Gag

We're not even done with the first week of the Trump presidency, and Trump is off to the races with his attempt to make America great again. Thanks to expanding executive power over the years, Trump has begun to take full advantage of the executive order. One such executive order that Trump signed earlier this week is commonly known as the "global gag rule" or the "Mexico City Policy," the latter of which comes from the fact that the policy was announced in Mexico City in 1984. Per this primer from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Mexico City Policy requires foreign NGOs to certify that they will not "perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning" with non-U.S. funds as a condition of receiving U.S. global family planning assistance. This is in addition to the already-existing laws saying that U.S. foreign aid cannot directly fund abortions. Since the Reagan administration, the Mexico City Policy has been enacted by a Republican president and immediately rescinded by a Democratic president once the transition of power takes place.

Before jumping into the implications of the executive order, I would briefly like to take a look at the budgetary history. In terms of family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) funding, the amount allotted has stayed relatively constant in real dollars since the mid-1970s (O'Hanlon, 2009).


While the graph above only goes to 2007, we see that constant funding of FP/RH servies remain up to this day (see below).


In FY 2016, USAID was granted $608 million to provide family planning assistance to developing countries as part of its mission. One argument that can be made in favor of the executive order is that historically speaking, funding hasn't really declined as a result of the Mexico City Policy. If a family planning assistance provider refuses to comply, the funds simply go to another NGO. The historical trend in FP/RH funding illustrates that. However, funding is only a part of the equation.

The purpose of this policy is to not only send a message about the value of life, but also show that taxpayer dollars should not support abortions. It is to show an ideological commitment that the Trump administration does not condone abortion, and is willing to stop abortion. Additionally, money's fungible nature makes it more difficult to determine whether allocated dollars are used for contraceptives or abortion. The Mexico City Policy at least does away with the ambiguity. I will spare us the irony of forcing other countries to encourage more restrictive abortion standards while not addressing those in the United States, but here is the trick question: does the Mexico City Policy actually decrease, let alone stop, abortions?

Just so we're clear, I am a pro-life libertarian, and no, that is not a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, I am going to be realistic here because I don't believe in some utopia in which abortion would be non-existent, much like I don't think we'll live in a world without poverty or crime anytime soon. Whether we look at countries with restrictive or lax laws on abortion, there is still going to be abortion. From a policy standpoint, we can't ask ourselves if we can have a world without abortion because that's not tenable. Instead, we have to ask ourselves whether we want a world that has more or less abortion. Personally, I would like to see a world with less abortion. With that goal in mind, a major metric of good abortion policy is whether abortion rate declines. I am making the distinction between good intentions and good results here because they are all too often blurred when discussing public policy. I am a fan of public policy that has good results, as opposed to feel-good policy that either does nothing to help or makes the situation worse. I had a similar sentiment a few years back when Mississippi tried passing a personhood amendment that would have considered a zygote as a human being with the exact same rights as an individual already-born. Do pro-lifers care more about feeling good about passing uplifting, but ineffective anti-abortion legislation, or does it feel better to have the abortion rate go down as a result of good policy?

That's what I have to wonder with the Mexico City policy. Ironically enough, allowing for these NGOs to be funded, even in spite of their support for abortion, very well might be keeping abortion rates lower than they would be otherwise. Removing this funding does not simply mean no funding of abortions, but no funding of birth control, maternal care, or HIV testing for high-risk individuals in the developing world. Since the funding would be applied to more compliant NGOs, it is nigh impossible to determine what the net cause of lives saved or lost would be. But we could take a better guess at how it would affect abortion rates.

As you can imagine, there isn't exactly a lot of research on something this obscure. However, we do have a 2011 Stanford University study that shows that while President Bush (43) enacted the Mexico City Policy, the policy caused abortion rates in the sub-Saharan to actually increase (Bendavid et al., 2011)! Tangentially, a study from the International Food Policy Research Institute shows how that Ghana experienced an increase in abortion rates when there was a decrease in FP/RH funding (Jones, 2015).

It would be nice to have more evidence on the effects of the Mexico City Policy, but based on the evidence available, President Trump reenacting the Mexico City Policy was a bad idea. Instead of preventing abortion, we now have a policy that, in all probability, will increase abortion. For someone who truly self-identifies as pro-life, policy that increases abortion rates, regardless of intent, should be disconcerting. Rather than celebrate the executive order, pro-lifers need to realize that Trump has done a disservice to developing countries.

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