At a Los Angeles anti-abortion rally, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said "folks in Washington" have failed "to protect citizens at every stage in life."
In President Barack Obama’s first week in office, Perry said, he "chose to overturn the ‘Mexico City Policy,’ which basically means that your federal tax dollars can now be used to fund abortions all over the world."
Back story: Obama rescinded what is known as the Mexico City Policy on his third day as president in January 2009, according to news accounts posted online. The policy, first put in place by President Ronald Reagan, requires foreign nongovernmental groups getting U.S. family planning funds to agree that they will not perform or "actively promote" abortion as a method of family planning outside of the United States, even if using money from other sources.
Those family planning grants are distributed through the U.S. Agency for International Development and are used to fund a variety of activities, including distribution of contraceptives and training of health care workers. Groups may also use the funds to provide emergency treatment for women who have been hurt by or become ill from an abortion.
The Reagan administration announced the expanded restrictions at the 1984 International Conference on Population in Mexico City (the source of the policy’s name), saying that the United States "does not consider abortion an acceptable element of family planning programs and will no longer contribute to those of which it is a part."
Since then, the Mexico City Policy has been in place during Republican administrations and repealed during Democratic ones.
According to a 2001 Congressional Research Service report, the policy defined abortion promotion — banned under the Mexico City Policy — as working "to increase the availability or use of abortion as a method of family planning." Prohibited activities included operating a counseling service that includes information on the benefits and availability of abortion, advising someone that abortion is available and lobbying a foreign government to legalize abortion as a method of family planning.
The policy allowed for several exceptions. Among them: A group receiving U.S. funds was allowed to perform abortions if a woman’s life was threatened or if a pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. Aid recipients could also continue to treat women who had been injured during legal or illegal abortions
So, is Perry correct that the policy’s 2009 removal by Obama means federal tax dollars can fund abortions all over the world?
Not so, says Ellen Starbird, deputy director of USAID’s office of population and reproductive health, because regardless of the Mexico City Policy, a 1973 federal law known as the Helms amendment prohibits U.S. foreign aid from paying for abortions as a method of family planning in foreign countries.
A 2010 CRS report says that after 1973 but before the Mexico City Policy came to be, no U.S. funds could be used directly to pay for abortion as a method of family planning abroad, though in countries where abortion was legal, foreign NGOs receiving U.S. aid could use other money to perform them. In those cases, the report says, the groups were required to keep "segregated accounts for U.S. money in order to demonstrate compliance with the abortion restrictions."
Once the Mexico City Policy was in place, groups that wanted U.S. family planning aid couldn’t provide abortions, regardless of the funding source. Conversely, now that the policy has been lifted, foreign NGOs that perform abortions can receive U.S. family planning aid.
Seems straightforward. But as we’ve learned with other abortion-related fact-checks, it’s not.
After learning about the funding restrictions in the Helms amendment, we circled back to Perry’s office. Spokeswoman Catherine Frazier stood by Perry’s statement, saying that "if U.S. taxpayer money is going to groups that provide abortions, regardless of any other services they provide, it’s going toward promoting and funding abortions."
Likewise, Kellie Fiedorek, a lawyer for Americans United for Life, a pro-life advocacy group, told us that without the policy intact, "Americans’ tax dollars may still go to NGOs that provide abortions."
Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a pro-life think tank, told us that a group’s ability to move its money around is the key to assessing whether Perry’s statement is accurate. "If you believe money is fungible, then what Perry said is true," Ruse said.
That concern also has played prominently in debates in Congress and statehouses over providing domestic abortion providers with funding for other services.
Proponents of the Mexico City Policy also say that groups newly getting USAID money for family planning can then free up other funds for abortions.
USAID spokesman Nicole Schiegg told us that the agency "has a robust compliance system in place to ensure that our funds are not used for prohibited activities."
Starbird told us that if a foreign NGO that provides abortions receives U.S. family planning aid, it is required to keep that money separate from its own. The groups are not allowed "free rein" with the funds, she said.
Starbird said each award to a foreign NGO is for a specific purpose, and written agreements specify limits such as the Helms’ restriction. She also said recipients are required to account for how the funds are spent, including any money awarded for overhead or indirect costs, and USAID workers monitor the programs.
For longer perspective, we asked Barbara Crane, an author of a 2001 article on the Mexico City Policy for Science magazine, about Perry’s statement and the funding issues raised by the policy’s proponents.
Crane, a former USAID employee working for Ipas, an international NGO that supports abortion rights, suggested the government takes a chance on money being misspent whenever it makes an award.
Crane said, though, that if the government holds groups accountable for delivering the services for which the aid money was awarded, "there is little opportunity for … the organization to divert funds to support current or new activities in other areas."
We unsuccessfully sought independent research into how foreign NGOs have spent USAID family-planning money. Separately, Perry’s office offered no evidence of U.S. family planning funds enabling particular NGOs to perform abortions.
We also could not determine how many foreign NGOs receive U.S. family planning aid and also perform abortions. Starbird told us that the agency doesn’t ask groups seeking family planning money whether they provide abortions. But Crane, of Ipas, speculated that most don’t engage in abortion-related activities, and many are working in nations that have strict abortion laws.
Where does that leave us?
With the policy’s repeal, foreign NGOs that perform abortions can receive U.S. family planning money. However, longstanding federal law bars any aid from being spent on abortions, and USAID polices how its family-planning grants are spent.
But Perry’s statement retains a sliver of truth in that it’s possible some aid could be misspent or that U.S. aid could free up other money to go toward abortions.
We rate the statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.