WASHINGTON — Canada's Liberal government cheered Thursday as President Joe Biden reversed a U.S. policy that denies federal funding to international aid organizations that support abortion.
Biden signed a presidential memorandum to rescind the policy known as the "global gag rule" and to protect and expand access to reproductive health care in the U.S. and around the world.
The policy, born under Ronald Reagan in 1985, prohibits international non-profit groups from receiving U.S. funding if they provide abortion counselling or referrals.
It has been either rescinded by a Democratic president or restored by a Republican five times in the last 28 years. Donald Trump expanded it to include all aid groups, not just those focused on family planning.
"Women's rights are human rights," International Development Minister Karina Gould said in a statement that welcomed the decision.
Gould called it a sign of the U.S. joining "the global consensus on the right for women to choose and support programs for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights."
In 2019, the federal Liberals announced a 10-year plan to spend $1.4 billion a year by 2023 on a "comprehensive approach" to women's health and rights around the world.
That plan includes $700 million specifically for sexual and reproductive health, including comprehensive abortion care.
"Our government will continue to work with partners in Canada and around the world to dismantle barriers that seek to restrict women, girls and trans people from accessing the health care they have a right to."
Trump's version of the rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy, was the most expansive yet, covering an estimated US$12 billion in international health aid.
"Undue restrictions on the use of federal funds have made it harder for women to obtain necessary health care," the Biden memorandum reads.
"These excessive conditions on foreign and development assistance undermine the United States' efforts to advance gender equality globally by restricting our ability to support women's health and programs that prevent and respond to gender-based violence."
Such restrictions, it notes, "are particularly harmful in light of the (COVID-19) pandemic."
The memo also directs the Department of Health and Human Services to "take immediate action" towards rescinding related directives under the family-planning program known as Title X.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki described Biden's recent flurry of executive actions as an urgent effort to overturn several "detrimental, harmful and at times immoral" Trump-era policies.
"He's not going to delay action that would help bring relief to the public and … help ensure women have access to reproductive health as well," Psaki said.
Ottawa-based Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights said they intend to press the Biden White House to follow its expressions of support with real funding and political momentum.
"The politicization of women's bodies and decision-making for political gain is really a devastating thing to think about, especially when abortion is recognized under international human rights law," said Sarah Kennell, the group's director of government relations.
Canada had its own version of the rule under former prime minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government until it was reversed by the newly elected Trudeau Liberals in 2015.
"We've had to put in place our own mechanisms — as civil society but also as the government of Canada has — to safeguard against attempts to have that be the case again."
Kennell and executive director Kara Gillies both called Biden's move a good first step, but warned the White House still has a lot of work to do to back its words with action.
"It needs to come with political and global funding commitments that support sexual and reproductive rights on the ground."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled the last names of Sarah Kennell and Kara Gillies.