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Why Biden reversing the anti-abortion 'gag rule' matters

Trump advanced both a global gag rule and a domestic edition. Many women and girls around the world will benefit from Biden undoing both policies.
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden signs executive orders strengthening access to affordable healthcare at the White House, on Jan. 28, 2021.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

It's generally known as the "Mexico City Policy." Ronald Reagan's administration adopted a policy that imposed a gag rule on international family planning organizations: groups that receive public funds were prohibited from telling patients that abortion exists, even in countries where abortion is legal.

There's ample evidence that global gag rule does extensive harm to women, especially in developing countries, which is why the Clinton administration reversed the policy in 1993. Eight years later, George W. Bush restored the Mexico City Policy, though he clearly didn't know what it was.

The policy ping-pong never stopped. Barack Obama reversed Bush's policy, and four years ago, Donald Trump brought it back. Yesterday, Joe Biden kept the back-and-forth going, issuing a presidential memorandum reversing the Mexico City policy. The impact on health care for women and girls, especially in developing countries, will be significant.

But let's not forget that Trump didn't just back a global gag rule; he also signed a domestic gag rule in 2019. The point wasn't to prohibit taxpayer support for abortion -- that was already prohibited -- but rather, to target funding for organizations that might mention the word "abortion."

As the New York Times noted, Biden is tackling that, too.

Mr. Biden also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to, "as soon as practicable, consider whether to suspend, revise, or rescind" the so-called domestic gag rule — a collection of regulations imposed by the Trump administration that prohibit federally funded family-planning clinics from counseling patients about abortion.

Note, the Trump administration's domestic gag rule can't simply be undone through executive action; there's a regulatory process officials will have to follow. But with his order yesterday, Biden initiated that process.

It's the latest in a series of elections-have-consequences moments, this time on reproductive rights.

Postscript: As I've done several dozen times, I want to emphasize, in the interest of disclosure, that my wife works for Planned Parenthood. And while the Trump administration pursued changes to the family-planning program known as Title X, and those changes affected a variety of health care organizations that provide services to millions of women, it wasn't exactly a secret that the Republican policy was intended to target Planned Parenthood.