Mainstream Media Overreacts to Expanded Mexico City Policy

by Michael J. New

Earlier this week, the Trump administration released an executive order expanding the Mexico City policy. This policy, first enacted by President Reagan in 1984, prevents overseas government organizations from providing or endorsing abortion as a method of family planning if they wish to receive federal funding from the U.S. The original Mexico City policy applied to the approximately $600 million the U.S. furnishes in global family planning funding, but under the revision, $8.8 billion global health assistance will be covered.

This is a policy change that pro-lifers should welcome. For years, organizations supporting legal abortion have used U.S. taxpayer funds to weaken pro-life laws in other countries. This expanded policy will significantly reduce taxpayer complicity in global abortion. More importantly, the change will not reduce the overall amount of U.S. funding for global health assistance. Instead this rule change will prioritize maternal care, prenatal care, and other programs that ensure adequate nutrition and medical care for mothers and children, rather than abortion.

Unsurprisingly, mainstream media outlets have been nearly unanimous in their criticism of this policy change. The New York Times quoted only critics of the policy in its May 15 article. Slate denounced the decision, stating that President Trump was holding $8.8 billion in global aid “hostage.” The Independent ran a headline saying “Women and Children Will Die.” Even worse, in a May 16 editorial, the Washington Post claimed that the revised policy would “result in at least tens of thousands more deaths.”

These outlandish claims have little basis in fact. Some analysts argue that cutting funding to organizations that perform abortions will reduce access to contraception, resulting in more unintended pregnancies and higher rates of maternal mortality. However, the Washington Post includes only two citations to back up these claims. Neither are convincing.

The first citation is to a fact sheet by the advocacy group Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE). The fact sheet relies heavily on an analysis conducted by Marie Stopes International, which claims that the Mexico City policy will result in 6.5 million unintended pregnancies and over 21,000 maternal deaths. However, Marie Stopes is an international abortion provider that stands to lose millions of dollars as the result of the revised policy, which makes it difficult to view the group’s claims without some skepticism.

The second citation is to a policy analysis conducted by the Center for American Progress, linking to a World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheet about maternal mortality. But this WHO fact sheet actually makes no claims about the Mexico City policy itself and its potential effects on maternal-mortality rates.

The Washington Post editorial also claims there is no evidence that the Mexico City policy lowers the incidence of abortion. Once again, they provide weak evidence, linking to just three studies. Two of those studies are largely useless, as they analyze abortion only in Ethiopia and Ghana respectively. The third study, published by WHO, is more comprehensive and looks at abortion rates for 20 African countries over 14 years, but it provides little evidence that the Mexico City policy has actually increased the incidence of abortion. First, contraception use increased in these countries after the policy took effect, which changes abortion rates separate from the policy. Furthermore, the numbers are unreliable because the reporting of abortion-rate data was very inconsistent, as 42 percent of the data points involving national abortion rates are missing.

It should be noted, too, that there is a body of research showing that contraceptive availability has little impact on fertility rates. A 2012 Policy Review study by Nicholas Eberstadt and Apoorva Shah examined fertility rates in over 40 Muslim countries and found a strong correlation between fertility rates and the number of children that women desired. The availability of contraceptives had only a marginal impact on fertility rates.

Similarly, Lant Pritchett’s 1994 study in Population and Development Review of more than 60 less-developed countries found that national fertility rates are principally determined by the desire for children rather than by availability of birth control and abortion. Pritchett concluded that “contraceptive access or family planning effort more generally is not . . . a major factor in determining fertility differences.” It is unfortunate, but unsurprising, that the mainstream media chose instead to report the inflated claims of advocacy groups as fact — instead of taking a hard look at the actual research available on these issues.

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