Lawmakers, government officials, and aid workers are bracing themselves for a broad offensive from President-elect Donald Trump against federal programs that support family planning and gender equality around the world.
As one of his first acts in the Oval Office, the Republican president-elect plans to restore the “Mexico City policy” as soon as Sunday, a congressional staffer told Foreign Policy. Also known as the “global gag rule,” the policy blocks any foreign aid or federal funding of programs that also provide abortions and often broader health services. The timing of the executive order on Sunday would coincide with the anniversary of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States.
Beyond the gag rule, aid officials fear the next administration has its sights set on slashing programs designed to empower women and bolster public health, including projects aimed at ending gender-based violence and providing women opportunities in business and in politics.
The gag rule has a long history of being used as a political football by presidents from both parties, and policy experts see its return as a given under a Republican White House. Whether Trump also will move to gut programs at the State Department and USAID on global health and gender equity is less clear. But given his adopted party’s position on social issues, Trump’s controversial statements toward women and his transition team’s focus, there are growing concerns that the next administration could target aid programs deemed to have a “liberal social agenda.”
In a memo last month that dismayed aid officials and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the Trump transition team asked both the State Department and USAID to detail jobs and costs for programs that promote gender equality, the New York Times reported. And another survey circulating at the State Department and Pentagon seemed to question the rationale for U.S. assistance for global health relative to security.
The gender equality and health projects represented a signature initiative of President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which built on the work of previous administrations.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the only woman remaining on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been planning a legislative response to Trump if he goes ahead with restoring the gag rule and paring back international women’s programs.
“It will be one of their first actions, which is very short-sighted,” Shaheen said of Trump reviving the gag rule.
As for the Trump team’s request for information on programs promoting gender equality, she said that not only would targeting such programs be counter to American values — it would also hurt national security. “Abolishing those programs is antithetical here in our democracy,” she said.
Shaheen has vowed to introduce legislation to block Trump’s push and preserve measures to maintain the America’s status as a “global leader” in empowering women, an approach that she maintains helps reduce the risk of war.
But with both chambers of Congress controlled by Republicans who have long pushed to restore the Mexico City policy and who are traditionally suspicious of foreign aid and family planning, she acknowledged there is little opponents can do to stop them.
“It’s been a political football,” she told FP of the gag rule, even though “we understand it is not in the interests of women or, ultimately, America’s interest.”
A more than 50-year-old law already prohibits NGOs that receive U.S. funding from using it to perform abortions or encourage anyone to practice abortions. But in 1984, Republican President Ronald Reagan expanded the limitation and established the “Mexico City policy,” instructing USAID to bar funds from any NGO that used even nongovernment sources to provide a range of services, from information regarding abortion to lobbying foreign governments to make it available.
Democratic President Bill Clinton rescinded the rule. Republican George W. Bush brought it back and extended it to the State Department. His successor, Obama, a Democrat, axed it on his second day in office in 2009.
Trump has issued conflicting statements on abortion, saying if it becomes illegal women should face “some sort of punishment,” but later backing off. He has also expressed skepticism about foreign aid and U.S. support for multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. But the Republican Party platform, passed this summer in close coordination with the Trump team, is clear: It affirms Reagan’s position and calls for a reevaluation of support for the U.N., in particular its work on birth rates and economic development.
Trump officials have been closely guarding his first moves, with staffers across Congress still unaware of his plans as of Thursday but not expecting him to buck the party. Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said on a press call Wednesday that Trump will issue a number of executive orders on Friday and Monday, but he declined to comment to FP on whether reinstating the Mexico City policy will be among them.
The president-elect’s picks for his landing team at the State Department as well as his Cabinet have sent mixed signals on the incoming administration’s stance on women’s aid programs — and even the global gag rule.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump’s choice for U.N. ambassador, said during her confirmation hearing Wednesday that she is avowedly pro-life but wants to expand access to education and contraception in other countries.
Last week, Trump’s pick to lead the State Department, Rex Tillerson, told Shaheen he would continue State Department programs promoting gender equity abroad but wouldn’t commit to the current level of funding for family planning.
The Trump aide charged with prepping Tillerson, Erin Walsh, a former Goldman Sachs executive who leads Trump’s landing team at the State Department, previously served as a senior advisor in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs under Bush. She founded programs focused on the “empowerment of women” across 16 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Walsh reportedly will manage appointments for the State Department and USAID in the Trump White House.
Heather Hurlburt, a scholar in political reform at the New America think tank, said she would be “really surprised” if Trump didn’t immediately move to restore the gag rule. “It’s a go-to Republican talking point,” she said.
She warned of the potentially adverse consequences to U.S. foreign policy of both restoring the gag rule and also cutting funding for programs dedicated to health and gender equality. Hurlburt pointed to a growing body of research that has found gender inequality fosters extremism and that the more women are given a voice, the better chances of avoiding conflict.
It’s not just Democrats that have embraced the idea that helping to improve women’s health and livelihood in developing countries also bolsters national security. George W. Bush’s White House enthusiastically endorsed the approach in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs at the State Department under Obama.
“They thought of it as an important investment in winning the peace in those conflict environments,” said Cofman Wittes, who also advised Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “That’s not a Republican or Democratic insight.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate in a strongly conservative GOP Senate majority, said she opposes bringing back the global gag rule.
“I do not think it makes sense,” she told FP. “All of these organizations are already prohibited from using American tax dollars to finance abortions, so what it’s really doing is discouraging women from reaching out to get birth control that would prevent the need for abortions and help them with their family planning needs.”
She cautioned against reading too much into the Trump team’s requests for information, though she believed they view women’s programming as “controversial.”
Both parties express support at least for the principle of assisting and empowering women, and recent legislation has had Democratic and Republican co-sponsors. But in practice, most Republicans lawmakers are deeply suspicious of government funding for health initiatives, family planning, and gender inequality programs both at home and abroad that they view as potentially running counter to their core beliefs on social issues, including opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgender rights.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), though a hawk who frequently spars with Trump on foreign policy, said he would support a move to restore the Mexico City policy and agreed it was time to take a hard look at women’s aid programs.
“The State Department is trying to basically get countries who receive foreign assistance to sign up for a liberal agenda,” Graham said, adding that under Obama, “It’s been out of control.”
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