Politics & Policy

Reagan’s Mexico City Policy

(Ronald Reagan Library)
President Reagan shocked elite opinion by refusing to fund organizations involved in abortion.

The 30th anniversary, this month, of the United Nations’ 1984 Mexico City Conference on Population and Development is an opportunity to reconsider the controversy that surrounded it and that keeps it a matter of contention to this day. That gathering was one in a series of decennial conferences convened under U.N. auspices: Bucharest in 1974, Mexico City in 1984, and Cairo in 1994. In each case, government representatives, outnumbered by the legions representing non-governmental organizations lobbying for increases in their population-control budgets, agreed that, whatever progress might have occurred here or there, more needed to be done.

Which is why, even as much of the world has reached, or fallen below, zero population growth, and some governments are instituting pro-natalist policies, and China has recognized the downside of its one-child policy, and the U.N. itself projects global fertility rates to fall to replacement levels by 2050, the funding machinery of population control still chugs along. A new U.N. Commission on Population and Development was unveiled earlier this year. Soon thereafter, functionaries met in New York to “assess implementation” of the Cairo conference’s recommendations. A separate Parliamentarians’ Conference met in Sweden for the same purpose — the sixth such conference since the meeting in Cairo. And on September 20 of this year, a special session of the General Assembly will seek to “renew political support for actions required for the full achievement of [Cairo’s] goals and objectives.” In other words, more needs to be done.

In popular memory — which is to say, in mainstream-media coverage — the import of the 1984 conference was that it occasioned President Reagan’s issuance of what has since been termed the Mexico City Policy. Hailed by conservatives, damned by the Left, Reagan’s policy had two provisions. First, the U.S. government’s population-control program would not fund any NGO involved with abortion, whether through its provision or its advocacy. In short, Reagan erected a Wall of Separation between abortion and U.S. presence (through our grantees) in the developing world. Entirely apart from the ethics of abortion, it was high time someone realized how damaging it was to our national interest to be identified with groups that were transgressing local mores and outraging powerful interest groups. The involvement of our Agency for International Development in the Shah’s campaign to push abortion and sterilization upon Iranian women was a tragic case in point.

The second part of the Mexico City Policy was the declaration that the U.S. would not fund any entity involved in coerced abortion, like the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. No, the UNFPA never sent agents to hunt down pregnant Chinese women, and it never ran the clinics where children, including children ready to be born, were butchered en masse. All the UNFPA did was finance the purchase, by China’s population controllers, of computer systems and other infrastructure that made possible the monitoring and reproductive control of the helpless Chinese people. I need not spell out the ghastly parallel, with certain European corporations about 70 years ago, that comes to mind.

Since 1984, those two provisions have become a political litmus test. They were continued by President George H. W. Bush, rejected by President Clinton, restored by President George W. Bush, and ​stopped by President Obama. They are embraced by the drafters of the quadrennial Republican platform and excoriated by Democrats as President Reagan’s “gag rule.” In actual operation, the Mexico City Policy did nothing to reduce access to family planning. Indeed, the great majority of AID’s grantees went along with it, with the exception of the London-based International Family Planning Association, which expelled any of its member organizations that abided by the policy. And, needless to say, U.S. funding for population-control programs continued to grow.

Although Mr. Reagan’s decisions concerning abortion and family rights were important, they were tangential to the broader moral and philosophical conviction behind them. That was his rethinking of our government’s involvement, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, in a misguided and misanthropic crusade.

It may be necessary to remind today’s readers of the pseudoscientific hysteria that afflicted Western elites in the 1960s and 1970s, summed up in the no-growth ideology of the Club of Rome. Because the world was thought to be running out of resources — we would be out of water in X years, out of oil in Y years, out of rice, or steel, or whatever in Z years — the gospel of Carl Sagan (and others) brooked no dissent. Two things were therefore necessary: more government control and fewer people. There were even proposals to penalize families with “too many” children, although, to the best of my knowledge, only one member of Congress — Senator Robert Packwood — was bold enough to introduce legislation to that effect. (But then, Senator Packwood was bold in more ways than one.)

President Reagan was up against that most amorphous and dangerous of beasts: a consensus among the most respectable people. Indeed, within his own administration, some officials were busily preparing quite a different approach to the Mexico City conference. On May 15, 1984, the State Department’s coordinator of population affairs hosted a day-long strategy meeting with all the usual suspects: the Population Crisis Committee, the Population Council, the Population Institute, Rafael Salas (director of the UNFPA), AID’s director of the Office of Population, and others. None of them could have been aware of what would happen to their plans for the conference when the president took a personal interest in it.

He rewrote the script. He did what some of his underlings at State and AID refused to do, which was to consider men and women as assets rather than liabilities. The result was an internal White House document giving policy direction to those who were to represent the United States at Mexico City, as well as the president’s selection of a Reaganite delegation to the conference, headed by Undersecretary of State, and former senator, James Buckley.

The Reagan policy paper was a pro-growth manifesto. In its first paragraph, it acknowledged that “there is no question of the ultimate need to achieve a condition of population equilibrium. The differences that do exist concern the choice of strategies and methods for the achievement of that goal.” But Reagan’s method was to apply the same principles that were energizing America’s domestic recovery during his administration. Not surprisingly, it had a certain Kempian ring to it: “people are the ultimate resource”; for “many nations, population growth has been an essential element in economic progress”; “the population boom was a challenge; it need not have been a crisis.” And this: “The first of these [negative] factors was governmental control of economies. . . . The post-war experience consistently demonstrated that, as economic decision-making was concentrated in the hands of planners and public officials, the ability of average men and women to work towards a better future was impaired, and sometimes crippled. . . . Under such circumstances, population growth changed from an asset in the development of economic potential to a peril.”

Here was the genius of Mr. Reagan’s Mexico City Policy: the way he linked social policy — in this case, concerning abortion — to economic policy, as if they were two sides of the same coin. Or to use a different metaphor, as if they were two hot wires which, intertwined, might jolt people into seeing things in a new way. In that context, abortion and “economic statism” appeared as conjoined evils, both of them rooted in a negative view of what individuals and families can accomplish for themselves and contribute to the common good.

That view lingers in some quarters. It has dominated our government for nearly the last six years, and we are not done with it yet. But hope — enduring hope, the kind generated not by a political campaign, but by the faith and courage of those “average men and women” whom Reagan so admired — does spring eternal. In this case, it springs from the president’s understanding that “the hope of prosperity and stability of a rapidly changing world . . . can be realized, of course, only to the extent that government’s response to problems, whether economic or ecological, respects and enhances human freedom, which makes true progress possible and worthwhile.”

— A former staffer for Senator James Buckley, Representative Henry Hyde, and others, Bill Gribbin was deputy director of the White House Office of Congressional Affairs under President Reagan. 



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