The Corner

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No, the Mexico City Policy is Not Increasing Abortion Rates Overseas

Protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration plans to strengthen the Mexico City policy, which has been in effect during every Republican presidential administration since 1984 and which prevents U.S. foreign-aid money from funding groups that either perform or promote abortions overseas.

Pompeo announced that the Trump administration will supplement the existing Mexico City policy with new restrictions to prevent backdoor funding of abortion.  He also noted that the State Department will now more faithfully enforce the Siljander amendment, which prohibits U.S. foreign-aid money from being directed toward abortion-related lobbying.

Unsurprisingly, this announcement has received extensive criticism from the left, including those who insist that the Mexico City policy actually increases the incidence of abortion overseas. A reporter raised this question at Pompeo’s press conference, and several media outlets including CNN, The Hill, and Mother Jones have reported on a recent study by Rutgers University professor Yana Rodgers, which purports to show that abortion rates in a number of developing countries increased when the Mexico City policy was in effect during the George W. Bush administration.

There is less to this study than meets the eye. Like many other studies that attempt to gauge the impact of the Mexico City policy, this one has a number of methodological limitations. Most important, overseas abortion data is often incomplete. The Rodgers study analyzed data from 51 developing countries between the years of 1994 and 2008. Potentially, she could have had abortion data for 765 state-year pairs. However, there are no abortion data for 278 of 765 state-years, meaning over 36 percent of the potential data points are missing. What’s more, Rodgers obtained abortion data for all 15 years from only twelve of the 51 countries covered in the study, meaning that 76 percent of the countries in the dataset are missing data.

Additionally, the available data on overseas abortions are often unreliable, and a closer look at the data Rodgers utilizes shows some implausibly large variations in the incidence of abortion in many of the countries she analyzes.  For instance, in Guyana the reported number of abortions increased 42-fold between 2004 and 2008. Similarly, in India, the reported number of abortions quadrupled between 2001 and 2005. In Morocco, the reported abortion rate fell by more than 96 percent in just one year, between 2003 and 2004. All of this shows that there are serious reliability issues with much of the data in Rodgers’s study.

Her study also considers only one policy change, another methodological weakness. Rodgers effectively compares data from 1994 to 2000, when the Mexico City Policy was not in effect, to data from 2001 to 2008, when the policy was. A stronger study would also consider data after 2008 to see if overseas abortion rates fell after the Obama administration rescinded the Mexico City policy. Another alternative would be to consider data from before 1992 to gauge the effect of the Mexico City policy during the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. However, since Rodgers analyzes only one policy change, it is possible that the reported increase in the incidence of abortion after 2001 might have been due to trends or other factors unrelated to the reinstatement of the Mexico City policy.

As public opinion has begun to shift in a more pro-life direction in recent years, supporters of legal abortion, including many in the media, have begun to pursue a different strategy. Instead of arguing that the pro-life argument for the sanctity of human life is philosophically wrong, abortion-rights supporters often argue that pro-life policies are ineffective or counterproductive. In reality, however, a substantial body of research illustrates that defunding organizations that perform abortions is an effective strategy for lowering abortion rates. Pro-lifers should welcome this strengthened Mexico City policy.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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