No, Trump Didn't Ban US Funds From Paying For Overseas Abortions

That's actually been illegal since 1973.

President Donald Trump on Monday revived a rule that restricts what foreign organizations taking US aid money can do with their other money, from any other donors.

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Under Trump's Mexico City policy, also called the "global gag rule," any foreign organization accepting US global health assistance can't use money from other donors to talk to women about abortion, let alone give one. Experts say this is going to have pretty terrible consequences for women, and it's likely to increase the number of abortions around the world.

Pretty quickly, though, a falsehood took hold. People thought that before the Trump policy, US aid money was paying for abortions in foreign countries.

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Even Sean Spicer, the new White House press secretary, thought this. "The president issued a memorandum reestablishing the Mexico City policy, stating that the United States will end the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortions," he said in his first official press briefing on Monday.

That's just not true. US foreign aid has two kinds of abortion-related restrictions on it. One is the global gag rule, which was first signed by Ronald Reagan in 1984.

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It’s an executive order, not a law, and that means that each president can decide if they want to rescind it or keep it in place. Reagan’s gag rule stayed in place under his successor, George H.W. Bush, until Bill Clinton took office. Clinton reversed it. Then George W. Bush put it back. Then Barack Obama reversed it. And yesterday, Trump put it back.

The other restriction is the Helms Amendment, which is a US law. It's been around since 1973.

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The Helms Amendment prohibits US foreign aid from being used to provide abortions, or to persuade women to get abortions, as a method of family planning. In practice, this policy is a steadfast no-abortion policy — with no exceptions, not even for rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger.

The amendment was passed in 1973, the same year that the US Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States. The amendment has been law ever since.

But — and don't get confused here —Congress also renews it every year. Even if they didn't, the law would still stand. Then why renew it every year? "Posturing," Brian Dixon, executive director of the Population Connection Action Fund, an organization that has been working on repealing the Helms Amendment, told BuzzFeed News.

Activists have been arguing that the language of the Helms Amendment should actually allows abortion services for rape survivors, because the amendment prohibits only "abortion as a method of family planning." Activists say abortions after rape, or when a pregnant woman's life is in danger, cannot be considered family planning.

Here's the actual language of the amendment:

"No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions."

The US government is really strict about this. Like, really strict.

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Money from USAID, the foreign aid arm of the US government, has to be kept in a separate account, according to Barbara Crane, a former senior advisor to USAID's Office of Population, Reproduction and Health, which is in charge of overseeing compliance with these restrictions. That helps prevent "co-mingling" with other aid money and even inadvertently slipping into a pool of cash that paid for an abortion. "It's so meticulous on the financial side of this," Crane said. "Funds really can't be mixed."

Nils Gade the regional director for East and Southern Africa at Marie Stopes International (MSI), said there's also a coding system that gives every public health activity one — and only one — code. Zero double-dipping allowed.

Many organizations also do their own audits. Some, like Marie Stopes International, even do two audits — one internally, by their own finance staff, and one externally, by an internationally recognized accounting and auditing firm, like Price Waterhouse Coopers. One of the jobs of those outside firms is to make sure that groups like MSI really are following the rules they say they follow.

There's also a lot of oversight from the government. USAID requires any organization that takes its funds to go through compliance training. There are USAID officers in many embassies, and one of their jobs is to make sure groups that use US government money are not violating this rule.

It's almost impossible to cheat this system, or even to accidentally pay for an abortion with US aid dollars. "There’s a lot in place to make sure of that, and it's been in place for decades," Crane said. (There's also the Office of the Ombudsman at USAID, and the General Accounting Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, and USAID's compliance record by both of these groups is "pretty nearly perfect," Crane said.)

And there's punishment, of course: Violate the rule and you could lose all that American funding.

The US is so strict, in fact, that most organizations steer clear even of some legal activities, just to be super-sure that they won't lose their US funding.

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This is called "the chilling effect," and reproductive health groups say it happens all over the world. In Kenya, BuzzFeed News found evidence that USAID stopped its grantees from going to a Ministry of Health meeting in 2015 because the abortion — which is legal in certain circumstances in Kenya — was supposed to be discussed there. In Malawi, a government official was told he couldn't attend a meeting on unsafe abortions because his job was supported with US funding, according to Patty Skuster, a senior policy advisor to Ipas, an international safe abortion access organization that works in the country.

Both the Helms Amendment and the global gag rule "play into this idea that organizations that agree to these restrictions and take US money are going to be unwilling to do anything that’s going to get them any heat," Dixon, of the PACF, said.

So, to recap: The Helms Amendment says you can't pay for abortions with US foreign aid. And the gag rule says that if you want US foreign aid, you can't use any other money on abortion-related services.


That's not just providing abortions. It's also making referrals, even in cases of medical necessity or emergency, or providing counseling or any other information about abortion.

When there's a gag rule, you have to sign an agreement saying you'll abide by its terms. If you refuse to sign the agreement, your US foreign aid will be cut.

Under Reagan and Bush, the gag rule applied to US family planning funding. Trump expanded the rule significantly yesterday, applying it to all US global health funding, including programs for HIV/AIDS prevention, infant mortality, and other non-reproductive-health-related programs.

That expansion is expected to have far-reaching, negative consequences, but right now people are still just trying to figure out what it all means. "The need for clarification is immediate and great right now, but the political appointees are not really in place in these agencies and departments," said Wendy Turnbull, senior advisory for international advocacy at PAI, a reproductive rights organization based in Washington, DC.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a health philanthropy, has a great overview of

But the basic takeaway is the same: Even before Trump brought back the global gag rule, US foreign aid didn't pay for abortions.