Biden to scrap ban on US funds for abortion counseling
Joe Biden (AFP)

President Joe Biden on Thursday is to dive into a political minefield when he scraps a ban on US funding for abortion counseling provided by international organizations.

On the eve of the anti-abortion movement's annual March for Life, the White House said Biden would rescind the so-called Mexico City Policy, which bars US funding for international non-profit organizations that offer abortion counseling or referrals.

The move is part of a broad package of health-related measures by the new Democratic president at a time when the country is reeling from Covid-19 and, as ever, grappling with a health care system that leaves millions of people uninsured.

Revoking the Mexico City Policy is not a surprise: it is a political ping-pong ball that for years Republican presidents have enacted and Democratic presidents have withdrawn.

But Biden is expected to go farther, ordering a review of rules under Donald Trump's administration that blocked government-funded family planning clinics in the United States from referring women for abortions.

Abortion has been legal in the United States since a landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, and Biden has consistently supported that ruling, which guarantees a woman's "right to choose."

Bidens' Democratic base largely supports abortion rights, but he is also a devout member of the Catholic Church which is firmly opposed to abortion.

Pressed last week on the new president's abortion stance -- particularly on legislation known as the Hyde amendment that would prevent federal funds from being used by Americans to pay for abortion -- White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to answer directly.

"I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that he is a devout Catholic and somebody who attends church regularly," she told reporters.

'Neo-colonial policy'

Politically, the issue cleaves a deep division among Americans, and Biden alienating a portion of them could hamper his efforts to build broad-based support to advance other policies on the economy and the coronavirus pandemic.

Strongly supported by US anti-abortion groups, the 1984 Mexico City Policy takes aim at non-American non-governmental organizations involved in health and family planning support in developing countries and whose operations benefit from official US financial aid.

Within days of taking office in January 2017, Trump outlawed the extension of US financing to such groups if they suppport, counsel or offer abortion.

Moreover, they could be banned from US aid if they themselves extend support to other NGOs which support abortion.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, that put restrictions on more than $7 billion in US aid last year, and potentially affected more than 1,000 foreign NGOs during the Trump ban.

Biden is taking the step just one day before the annual March for Life by the anti-abortion movement.

The march usually brings tens of thousands to Washington but, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, will be held mostly online this year.

"Funneling US tax dollars to abortion groups overseas is an abhorrent practice that flies in the face of the 'unity' Joe Biden and (Vice President) Kamala Harris promised to inspire," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List.

But numerous women's health advocates came out in support of Biden's move, and called on him to do more.

Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, said they were "thrilled" that Biden was to reverse what they called a cruel "neo-colonial policy."

But she said Biden needs to go farther, getting US embassies and agencies actively in support of the new policy.

"Global Health partners must be able to trust in US," she said.