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Trump administration expands limits on foreign aid over abortion services

May 15, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
President Trump majorly expanded the so-called "Mexico City policy" -- or as critics call it, the "gag rule" -- in a new executive order Monday. The rule has blocked international assistance to any programs that mention or provide abortions. In the past, the policy has affected about $600 million in funding; today's expansion will affect $9 billion. Reuters' Yeganeh Torbati joins William Brangham.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump went well beyond his Republican predecessors today with a major expansion of a policy that restricts how U.S. aid can be used for international health and family planning.

The rule, known as the Mexico City policy, has often blocked international assistance through the U.S. Agency for International Development to any groups or programs that provide or mention abortions. The president’s new order would apply to billions of additional dollars given out by the State and Defense Departments.

William Brangham is back with that story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The rule, often referred to as critics — I’m sorry — often referred to by critics as the gag rule, was first enacted in 1984.

Republican presidents traditionally reinstate it, and thus limit funding to NGOs that discuss or perform abortion. Democrats, including President Obama, then repeal it.

During his first few days in office, President Trump signed an executive order making it clear he would reinstate it. But, today, the scope of it became much clearer. In the past, about $600 million in funding was covered by the rule. Today’s expansion will now affect nearly $9 billion.

I’m joined now by Yeganeh Torbati. She covers the State Department for Reuters.

Welcome back to the NewsHour.

YEGANEH TORBATI, Reuters: Thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Very big expansion of this policy today, right?

YEGANEH TORBATI: Right.

So, before this version of the policy, under past Republican administrations, just like you mentioned, there was some version of this rule, but it applied only to family planning-related funding from USAID and the State Department.

Now, under this version of the policy, it is going to apply to basically all global health funding provided by the United States. That’s funding under the Defense Department, under the State Department, under USAID as well.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, that’s any U.S. agency, any U.S. department now falls under this rule?

YEGANEH TORBATI: Right. When it comes to their global health assistance dollars, they have to abide by this Mexico City policy.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, specifically, we touched on this a little bit, but the rule says, if you’re getting federal money, you can’t perform or mention abortions. Is that right?

YEGANEH TORBATI: Right. That’s basically the general version of the rule.

You can’t perform or mention abortions as part of family planning. Now, U.S. officials said today when they rolling out this policy that they will make exceptions for abortions performed basically in the cases of rape or incest or other sort of like emergency situations.

But, you know, the vast majority of abortions are not for those purposes. They’re for sort of family planning purposes. And so the funding will be restricted when it comes to groups that provide those sorts of services or mention them or talk about them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, specifically, what types of organizations are going to suddenly see this potential threat to their funding?

YEGANEH TORBATI: It’s a wide array of organizations that provide global health services. So, previous versions of this rule didn’t include groups that provide, for example, HIV/AIDS-related care or malaria-related care.

But, specifically, two major U.S. programs that provide that sort of funding to groups that provide that care, which are PEPFAR and the President’s Malaria Initiative, those now come under this rule.

And so critics and especially Democratic opponents in Congress, people who oppose this rule, say that that’s going to affect a wide array of services that the U.S. has traditionally funded in some of the most vulnerable countries, including parts of Africa, Southwest Asia and the like.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And I understand the Democrats have been highly critical of this and say just as you say.

On the other hand, people who want to restrict abortions see this as a huge victory. I mean, that’s what they’re — that seems to be the goal here, right, to restrict abortions that come via U.S. dollars all around the world.

YEGANEH TORBATI: Right.

I mean, one thing that’s notable, that we should note, is that even when the Mexico City policy is not in place, meaning under Democratic administrations, it’s usually one that’s been rescinded, federal law prevents the U.S. funds from being used to fund abortion services.

That’s a separate, you know, federal legal distinction. This rule applies to U.S. funding for organizations that provide abortions or provide information about abortions using funds from other non-U.S. sources. So that’s one distinction to make.

And, yes, you’re right. Groups that support this rule — and we heard from a lot of them today — say that, you know, they’re ensuring that U.S. funds aren’t sitting groups even that support these sorts of abortion policies that they don’t agree with. And so they’re really lauding President Trump’s action and the State Department’s implementation of that rule today.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Lastly, if an organization currently is being funded by the U.S., and they do mention or perform abortions somehow, can they simply change their mission and still receive money, or are they going to be cut regardless?

YEGANEH TORBATI: No, so the U.S. officials that we spoke to today and that we heard from say that they’re — one thing that they were at pains to acknowledge is that this is not a cut in funding.

The U.S. is going to continue to provide about $6 billion a year to PEPFAR, for instance, and $620 million for this malaria initiative. So they want to continue the funding and they intend to.

What they say they’re going to do is, they’re going to ask their partners abroad to sort of agree to a clause that says they are not going to talk about or provide abortion services.

Now, if those partners say that they can’t do it, then the U.S. officials say that they will basically find other partners that they believe are going to still be able to provide these services in an effective manner.

But it will basically require not a cut in funding, but a reallocation of funding.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I see.

YEGANEH TORBATI: And we will have to see, you know, is that going to be difficult on the ground? Is that going to restrict the number of partners that the U.S. can work with? How is that actually going to be implemented?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Yeganeh Torbati, thank you very much.

YEGANEH TORBATI: Thank you, William.

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