The Globalization of an Agenda

The Right Targets the UN with its Anti-Choice Politics

About Pam Chamberlain

This article derived from the PRA report UNdoing Reproductive Freedom: Christian Right NGOs Target the United Nations.

In June 2004, US officials brought along a special guest to a regional United Nations (UN) conference on population issues, held that year in Puerto Rico. It was Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ). Smith, at one time the head of the New Jersey Right to Life Committee, promotes himself as a champion for international human rights and a strong opponent of abortion.

“Anti-life strategies which rely on deception and hyperbole…are now being deployed with a vengeance in the developing world,” he once proclaimed.1

As a member of Congress for over twenty years, Smith took advantage of his presence at the regional UN conference — the biannual Economic Council for Latin America and the Caribbean—to directly lobby delegates against language that he felt hinted at abortion rights. While the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo a decade earlier had substituted a call for “reproductive health” instead of “family planning”—a change that filtered through all later UN documents—Smith wanted to switch it back.

Smith was a guest at the conference, not a diplomat. But that didn’t stop him from lobbying the heads of state of Uruguay and Guatemala by faxing them from Puerto Rico on Congressional stationery. In his message, Smith urged them to make abortions illegal in their countries and to instruct their delegations to vote against “direct attacks on the right to life, family rights, and national sovereignty” at the conference.2

Smith’s behavior, outlandish for a member of Congress, reflected what anti-choice lobbyists in Washington hoped for—a leader to take their agenda abroad.

Delivering Anti-Choice Politics Abroad

What began during the Reagan years as tentative steps into the international arena in the name of curtailing abortions has grown into a major political success under the administration of George W. Bush.3

Under George W. Bush, US intervention makes women’s health disparities worse. In 2001, he reinstated the “global gag rule” that had reigned during the Reagan and Bush I years, which requires any organization applying for US funds to agree neither to counsel nor provide women with abortions (see box).4 But that was only the starting point. Showing the disdain for working collaboratively with other countries that guides his foreign policy as a whole, Bush instead enlisted the help of evangelical Protestant and conservative Catholic organizations to disrupt the diplomacy needed to craft solutions to international crises in population growth, high rates of AIDS/HIV, and the needless deaths and debility resulting from too little reproductive health care.

The slow work in dismantling Roe v. Wade makes the Bush Administration eager to consolidate its support among its socially conservative base. Giving them access to the international arena may distract these activists from the fact that the Administration was failing to deliver entirely on their agenda at home.

In turn, many conservative Christianbased organizations find that going global with an anti-choice message is a comfortable fit. A series of factors influenced this move. First, if its members come from faith communities that send missionaries abroad, the organization tends to be sympathetic to international work. For instance, as early as the mid-1980s, Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America protested the persecution of a Christian poet in the Soviet Union and called attention to the needs of Nicaraguans who lived in refugee camps in Costa Rica.5 Choosing these projects was politically savvy, since they placed Concerned Women as a group firmly opposed to communism and supportive of religious freedom at the same time.

The second factor has been the resurgence of conservative evangelical involvement in the political sphere. While staying away from politics through most of the 20th century, evangelicals are now recognized as one of the major contributors to the rise of the political Right in the last 40 years. Early leaders, like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and Tim and Beverly LaHaye, are still in the forefront of Christian Right international work.

Third, working at the UN helps increase the organizations’ political power and organizational base in the United States, as leaders mingle with political heavyweights as official UN observers. They can broadcast their work on the large-scale Christian media networks and, perhaps, sustain their legitimacy as political players even as they faced failures in their effort to overturn Roe at home.

Finally, an extensive network of health and feminist organizations across the globe has advocated for women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy for decades, both locally and in global arenas. Yet even now, reports the Center for Reproductive Rights, “78,000 women die every year from unsafe abortion, a statistic that could be virtually eliminated by the provision of appropriate health information and services and law reform efforts.”6 Still, the conservative challenge to these more liberal organizations must go on.

Christian Thought, the UN and the Old Right

Conservative Christian thought gives power to the movement’s international work. Many on the Christian Right see the abortion struggle as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. Abortion is not only a sin to this faction, but women’s control of their reproductive futures is seen as threatening the preservation of family and society.7 This worldview raises the stakes of issues like abortion to a very high level in believers’ eyes, and it contributes its share to the dualistic, or “black/white” thinking that dominates the reproductive rights debate.

As it entered the global arena, the Christian Right began interweaving its analysis with that of the far Right in the United States, which has viewed the UN since its founding as a dangerous “One World Government.” The recent appointment of John Bolton as the stonewalling US Ambassador makes this anti-UN view in all practical terms official US policy.

Despite their skepticism about the institution, over the past five years the nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, of socially conservative groups have grown in number and gained power in the UN. They now engage in more aggressive and disruptive diplomacy by securing spots on official delegations. Their leaders even conduct their own wildcard diplomacy as Rep. Smith has demonstrated.

Austin Ruse, a prominent Catholic heading a conservative watchdog group at the UN, explains his strategy of stonewalling in an atmosphere of consensus:

We don’t need them all; we need only a few [member states]… We establish a permanent UN pro-family bloc of twelve states. And upon these we lavish all of our attention.8

Showdown at the UN

Despite anti-UN sentiment among anti-choice groups, their efforts to influence UN declarations have served ironically to legitimize the institution’s influence in conservative eyes. NGOs have an increasing role in the United Nations with over 2000 groups registered with consultative status on economic and social issues alone.9 Although the largest NGO presence is progressive, socially conservative forces, often originating in the United States, are growing in power. The ratio of pro-choice to anti-choice NGOs is now 3:2. Their agenda includes removing any mention of abortion and reproductive health in UN documents, opposing any recognition of gay rights, and disputing the value of comprehensive sex education.

Their battles focus on the language of the UN’s resolutions and policy recommendations. For instance, progressive women’s groups successfully established “reproductive rights” instead of “population control” in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, signaling a shift in emphasis from demographics to women’s rights. This prompted a backlash from conservative forces who saw the language as a slippery slope towards increased access to abortion worldwide.

Conservative NGOs, like the evangelical Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council, take their cues from their older brother at the UN, the Vatican/Holy See. The Vatican has been, at least until recently, the single most influential abortion opponent at the UN. This may be because of its special “permanent observer” status, held by no other NGO, which gives it more access and influence, and because of its lengthier history of participating in NGO activities there. In fact, the Vatican already mobilized opposition to the gains of the 1994 Cairo conference in time for the UN’s women’s conference in Beijing the very next year.

Well-funded, powerful groups work both alone and in “Family Rights” coalitions, sometimes forming alliances with unexpected religious groups. Shared beliefs are the threads that connect fundamentalist Muslims and Christians with similar views on traditional families and the role of women.

One of the prominent American antiabortion organizations working in the United Nations is the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (abbreviated as CFam), headed by Austin Ruse. Human Life International, an organization of Catholic priests with worldwide reach (which was denied official recognition in the UN due to its attacks on Islam and hostility towards UN goals) created C-Fam along with a think tank, Population Research International, led by Steve Mosher.

C-Fam issues UN-related faxes every Friday. These faxes are Ruse’s attempt to expose the “dirty laundry” of the UN while bragging about C-Fam’s ability to disrupt UN activity. C-Fam and similar organizations with ties to the Vatican/Holy See, Ruse says, consider countries such as Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and other moderate and hard-line governments as “allies” in the battle against abortion, homosexuality, and the general expansion of sexual and political rights. He rejoices at the hostility directed towards him by progressive groups, saying,

We attended all of the women’s meetings and essentially took them over. Memos were going back from the conference in New York to governments in the European Union that radical fundamentalists had taken over the meeting, and that was us.10
Since the Cairo conference, groups like the Mormon-supported World Family Policy Center, Concerned Women for America, and the National Right to Life Committee intensively monitor the planning schedule of international gatherings sponsored by the UN, prepare lobbying strategies for each event, and participate, sometimes with large contingents. Such anti-choice NGOs largely attend events on women’s issues, but by their mere presence they also have an impact on gatherings concerning children, families, population, the environment, and human rights.

The World Family Policy Center builds influence through its annual forums for UN delegates, ambassadors, and religious leaders from around the world, outlining how it sees UN policies affecting the family.11 Its series of World Congresses on Families culminated in the Doha International Conference for the Family, held in November of 2004, whose mission was to protect the “natural” family as the fundamental unit of society. Billed as an international conference like Beijing or Cairo, Doha was independent of the UN with an explicit anti-choice focus and attended by more than one thousand participants.

The conference drew on the common values of conservative Christians, Catholics and Muslims, and was held in the capital of the wealthy Emirate of Qatar. It involved a year of planning and regional conferences in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, with much of the research on the current state of the family and marriage provided by the Policy Center itself.

After the conference, the government of Qatar put forth a conservative resolution on the family to the UN General Assembly that was adopted without a vote. A number of speakers subsequently disassociated themselves from the consensus citing as their primary explanation the omission of language, previously accepted at international levels, which recognized that the family structure could take various forms, according to the official UN press announcement on the resolution.12

The forward momentum of anti-choice efforts at the UN suffered a setback in November of 2005. The UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), an 18- member group that monitors the implementation of the UN’s human rights covenants, decided in its first abortion case, KL v. Peru, that abortion is a human right. This decision affirmed the work of international women’s health advocates and sent anti-choice NGOs into tailspins. Austin Ruse stubbornly declared in his Friday Fax that the committee’s decision was not only an example of flawed reasoning but was non-binding anyway.13 Not so, says Luisa Cabal, Director of the International Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the groups that brought the case before the Committee.

We are thrilled that the UNHRC has ruled in favor of protecting women’s most essential human rights. Every woman who lives in any of the 154 countries that are party to this treaty—including the US—now has a legal tool to use in defense of her rights. This ruling establishes that it is not enough to just grant a right on paper. Where abortion is legal it is governments’ duty to ensure that women have access to it.14

The Impact on the Bush Administration

If reinstating the global gag rule was Bush’s opening shot for the anti-choice cause on the international level, refusing to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was certainly a follow up. Because this international treaty opposing discrimination against women includes suggestive language like “access to health care services, including those related to family planning,” US anti-choice groups feared it would lead to the right to an abortion.15 Their success in preventing the United States from signing on to CEDAW—in existence since the Reagan years—reflects the ability of these groups to maintain a long-term focus on curtailing women’s rights.

The treaty “is like the Equal Rights Amendment on steroids,” quipped Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America in describing her opposition.16

Not all their efforts muck up the works globally. At a February 2005 conference marking the 10th anniversary of the Beijing Conference on the Status of Women, official US delegates failed in their effort to remove references to the right to abortion but still reaffirmed support for the declarations made in Beijing.17 But all was not lost for anti-choice supporters. During the January 2006 holiday recess, Bush appointed the chief of the US delegation, Ellen Sauerbrey, a former Bush campaign worker and anti-choice representative at the UN, to be the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration without Congressional approval. Women’s health and human rights advocates worldwide expressed outrage.

The challenge to “suggestive language” has over the past few years become a major tactic of the Bush Administration at the United Nations. It repeatedly tried to weaken a unanimous resolution on the right to health by pressuring for the word “services” to be deleted from the phrase “health care services,” claiming that it was a code word for abortion.18

In promoting sexual abstinence for adolescents, the Bush Administration and its allies fight language referring to reproductive health care. For instance they fought this battle at the Special Session on Children in 2002 and in rescinding US support for the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development agreement (the Cairo Program of Action) which mentioned condoms explicitly.19

Even without winning battles over language, the power of the purse gives the United States considerable influence over many international programs. In 2003 and again in 2005, the US House of Representatives blocked $500 million in international family planning funds destined for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), falsely claiming that the funds would go to Chinese women aborting pregnancies to comply with China’s one child-one-family population policy.

The United States also froze $3 million in aid to the World Health Organization in 2002 because the global public health organization conducts research on safe abortion techniques.

Home-Grown Groups Take the Grand Tour

In line with their missionary orientation, Christian Right groups directly support grassroots efforts that promote a “culture of life” in other countries. These groups include: the American Life League, Concerned Women for America and its LaHaye Institute, Focus on the Family, Heartbeat International, Human Life International, the Justice Foundation, National Right to Life Committee, and United Families International.

Beyond launching overseas groups, they support foreign infrastructure and help develop their electoral strategies. For instance, the National Right to Life Committee’s Wanda Franz claimed that her group, with help from the American Life League, helped launch 200 local groups and elect 12 anti-choice members of parliament in Sweden in only six years.20 As she put it:

Early in the 1990s a young man named Michal Oscarson sought out NRLC’s support for a study project that allowed a few volunteers to come from Sweden and spend time here in America with NRLC staff and affiliates with a view to building a strong and effective prolife movement in that country. In the six years that have followed that venture Ja til Livet has grown to 200 chapters throughout Sweden. Recently they helped to elect 12 new pro-life parliamentarians, including Michal Oscarson himself.21

For those wanting to take special prolife missionary trips, Human Life International offers the chance to proselytize abroad while establishing satellite offices in more than 50 countries including Kenya, South Korea, Chile and Russia. The missionaries also export anti-choice strategies already in use in the United States: forming crisis pregnancy and post-abortion healing centers, fighting sex education and establishing “chastity programs” in schools, and training priests how to organize against abortion.

Recent media attention spotlighted the “Silver Ring Thing,” a Christian abstinence sexuality education program affiliated with the John Guest Evangelical Team. It encourages students to take virginity pledges and wear a silver ring as a symbol of their commitment to abstinence until marriage.22 A recipient of more than $1 million in US government faith-based funding since 2002, the Silver Ring Thing lost its government funding in August 2005 after an ACLU lawsuit. It still supports an international presence, particularly in South Africa where 10 events are already scheduled for 2006.23

Another well-known group with extensive international programming is Focus on the Family, which has produced a curriculum, “No Apologies, The Truth about Life, Love and Sex.” “No Apologies” can be found in many of the 150 countries where Focus has a presence. According to Focus’ own figures, “No Apologies” has reached 1 million teens worldwide.24

Why Export a “Pro-Life” Agenda?

There are pros and cons to working as an anti-choice NGO at the UN. Certainly a history and culture of missionary work can provide some of the experience and most of the motivation necessary to mount a campaign. Working at the international level can offer a magnified feeling of power. Yet many of the conservative NGOs working at the UN hold a critical, even disdainful, opinion of UN programs and of the institution itself. Steven Mosher, President of the HLI-supported Population Research Institute, has called the UN-initiated Global Fund for AIDS “the global fund for abortion, prostitution and the homosexual agenda.”25

Even while her organization works at the UN, a spokesperson for the Beverly LaHaye Institute at Concerned Women for America said:

Sincere women of faith within the mainline churches are being duped into thinking that by endorsing the UN they are helping the Great Commission of Christ to go into all the world, spreading the good news and healing the sick. Instead, their resources and influence are going to an institution that is often ineffective in providing relief to the suffering and oppressed. Even worse, scandal and unethical practices riddle the United Nations.26
Susan Roylance, a founder of United Families International, recognizes the contradiction but provides a rationale for sticking it out at the UN:

I do not believe family policies should be formulated in the international arena…We must become involved to protect our families from those who would “re-engineer” the social structures of the world.27

These comments are reminiscent of Sen. Jesse Helms’ fear that the UN represents a “One World” government. Helms’ politics, the same Helms who authored the 1973 Helms Amendment which prohibits spending federal money on abortions abroad, sit squarely at the intersection of a nationalist resistance to multilateral agreements and a desperate hold on traditional views of women.

The UN’s ability to attract powerful people motivates the groups to spend considerable resources to set up offices in New York and travel extensively to gatherings hosted around the world. Because of their NGO status, organizations can work directly with State Department officials in the US delegation, particularly now that the anti-choice UN critic John Bolton is ambassador. This allows for greater political incorporation of once marginal political groups.

Plus they can make news. Pro-family NGOs in general have learned to use the Christian media to reach a much wider audience than a mere mail campaign to donors and members. Through these TV, radio, and web services, as well as print media, they access a communications network that does not exist for them in mainstream media, transmitting their “culture of life” philosophy, pro-family stories, and anti-One World Government perspective.

These pro-family forces recognize the value of supporting multiple strategies simultaneously. They see the value of cultivating personal relationships with potential allies at United Nations’ gatherings that were designed with very different goals from their own. They do not hesitate to imagine that they are capable of influencing global institutions. They have tasted victory, and they will come back for another helping.

Global Gag Rule

In reinstating the global gag rule, Bush declared, “It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion, either here or abroad.”

In addition to losing funding, the organizations that do not comply with the gag rule also lose technical assistance and US-donated contraceptives, including condoms.

Its global impact has been profound, even with the European Union picking up some of the slack. The gag rule has disrupted not only abortion access but family planning services, prenatal care, and HIV/AIDS prevention in multiple countries worldwide, especially in the Global South.

Women, who both require family planning resources and account for almost half of the global population living with HIV/AIDS, suffer the most. The rule has resulted in the halting of progressive pro-choice lobbying in countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya, which have severely restrictive abortion laws. Particularly in Ethiopia, where abortion is completely illegal, most family planning agencies have refused to abide by the gag rule. As a result, the contraceptive supply has been restricted, leading to a high rate of illegal abortion, which is currently the second highest killer of women in that country.

    1. “An Urgent Appeal to get Involved in Politics: Public Service a Ministry to Protect the ‘Least of our Brethren And Strengthen the Family.’ ”, a speech at the Vatican Conference on Globalization, Economy and Family, Vatican City, November 2000.
    2. See for a copy of Smith’s fax.
    3. Because the mainstream media tends neither to cover the international work of conservative groups nor the international conferences themselves, the Christian media becomes an important source of information about the accomplishments of such groups as Human Life International, Concerned Women for America, and Focus on the Family abroad. Reproductive justice advocates, primarily from the international women’s heath network. Catholics for a Free Choice, the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), Planned Parenthood, and the International Women’s Health Coalition all watch this trend.
    6. “The Bush Global Gag Rule: Endangering Women’s Health, Free Speech and Democracy,” Fact sheet from the Center for Reproductive Rights, June 2003, at
    7. “Kitchen Table Backlash: The Antifeminist Women’s Movement,” in Mobilizing Resentment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999) 69-96 and Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty, “Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege,” in Defending Reproductive Rights (Somerville, Mass.: PRA, 2000) 1-24.
    8. Austin Ruse as quoted in Jennifer Butler, “For Faith and Family: Christian Right Advocacy at the United Nations,” The Public Eye, IX, 2/3, Summer/Fall 2000, 10.
    10. Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation speech, March 2000.
    11. Larsen, Kent. “BYU’s Annual World Family Policy Forum Addresses UN Policies.” July 27, 2001. Mormon News.
    13. C-FAM Friday Fax, December 9, 2005, at
    14. “UN Human Rights Committee Makes Landmark Decision Establishing Women’s Right to Access legal Abortion,” Press release, November 17, 2005, Center for Reproductive Rights.
    17. Goldenberg, Suzanne. “American Urges UN to Renounce Abortion Rights.” Guardian, March 1, 2005.
    18. “Bush’s Other War: The Assault on Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.” International Women’s Health Coalition.
    19. SIECUS Public Policy Office Fact Sheet. “Exporting Ineffective Policy: The Globalization of American Abstinence- Only-Until-Marriage Programs.”
    25. Steven Mosher, “Weekly Briefing,” February 21, 2003,
    26. Katy Kiser, “The United Nations: an Untold Story,” at: d=6623&&department=BLI&categoryid=reports.
    27. Susan Roylance, Pro-Family Negotiating Guide, (Gilbert, Ariz: United Families International, 2001) v.

Pam Chamberlain is a former senior researcher at Political Research Associates, with an expertise in gender justice, education, and campus issues.