Last spring, Laurie Shestack Phipps, a diplomat at the US mission to the UN, received a set of talking points from the US Department of State ahead of an international women’s conference, setting out clear red lines against mention of “sexual and reproductive health.”
This had become the norm in US President Donald Trump’s administration, in which the once uncontroversial phrase was seen as code for abortion. Use of the word “gender” was also strongly discouraged, as it was viewed as a stalking horse for LGBT rights.
It was no surprise that Phipps’ colleague, Bethany Kozma, a political appointee at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), had the same text. What was shocking was that she heard exactly the same words coming from the Yemeni spokesman for the Arab Group.
Most striking of all — the shared script was already familiar. It had been circulated before the conference by an anti-abortion lobbying group called the Center for Family and Human Rights, C-Fam.
C-Fam has emerged from the extreme right fringe on the issue of abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity to become a powerful player behind the scenes at the UN.
With only a modest budget and a staff of six, C-Fam president Austin Ruse has leveraged connections inside the Trump administration to enforce a rigid orthodoxy on social issues and built a US coalition with mostly autocratic regimes that share a similar outlook — that coalition has significantly shifted the terms of the UN debate on women’s and LGBT rights.
“When we got into negotiations, my instructions from Washington were verbatim taken from C-Fam and Kozma had the same talking points,” said Phipps, now an adjunct professor of global issues at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “Then the Arab group spoke, and they read their statement and it was exactly the same. I turned to Bethany and said: ‘How did they get your talking points?’ I was winding her up. She looked pretty chagrined. We both knew they were from C-Fam.”
C-Fam’s channel into the US State Department and into the US mission to the UN under the then-ambassador Nikki Haley had made itself increasingly apparent in the run up to last year’s Commission on the Status of Women at the UN’s New York headquarters.
“Nikki Haley’s staffers were in very close touch with C-Fam. C-Fam were continually phoning and e-mailing Nikki Haley’s staff talking about the language, giving line-by-line instructions,” she said. “It was highly inappropriate for a non-government organization to be giving line-by-line instructions. C-Fam would be sending e-mails that would be regurgitated in US cables.”
During the women’s conference, Kozma and other Trump political appointees attended a “listening session” at C-Fam offices without informing the rest of the US delegation, in a breach of normal practice.
Before the Trump administration, C-Fam had been a fringe operator at the UN. Founded in 1997 as the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute — to “monitor and affect the social policy debate at the UN” — it had to change its name after the Catholic Church distanced itself over Ruse’s extreme views.
In 2012, Ruse complained about a decision by the Human Rights Council to look into the summary executions by authoritarian regimes of people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity on the grounds that the decision was “introducing language that is just the nose of the camel under the tent.”
In 2015, a Catholic priest on the organization’s board resigned in protest at Ruse’s comment that “the hard-left, human-hating people that run modern universities should be taken out and shot.”
However, once Trump took office, Ruse became an insider, able to command attention from top US State Department officials.
Ruse in March 2017 wrote to then-director of policy planning Brian Hook and other senior political appointees at the US State Department, complaining that only one anti-abortion group was part of the US delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women that year.
“We believe the problem here is that Laurie Shestack Phipps is in charge of this and, while she is a career person, it is our belief that, even under the Bush administration, she was not with the administration on these important issues,” Ruse wrote.
Pam Pryor, a former aide to Sarah Palin who had been given a senior adviser job with the US undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, wrote back to Ruse a little over an hour later, saying: “I share your concern about the folks in charge... I can check out Ms Shestack Phipps though and get back to you. Thank you for caring about this with us!”
C-Fam was subsequently made part of the official US delegation to the 2017 Commission on the Status of Women and sent a delegate who sat at Phipps’ side throughout the event, taking notes.
Phipps was not aware of any effort to push her out of the position, but she found it increasingly difficult to represent an increasingly rigid US position on healthcare for women.
The breaking point came in April last year at the UN Commission on Population and Development, at which member states tried to hammer out consensus positions.
For most of the week-long conference, the US delegation helped draft a joint statement that included references to reproductive and sexual health (RSH), the result of past compromises during the administrations of former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“On the last day, I got new instructions,” Phipps said. “I was told to go into the room and say we can’t agree with RSH language, only references to ‘maternal health.’ I had to go into the room and say: ‘The US government cannot agree to what I have just spent a week negotiating.’ The next day, I put in my retirement papers.”
Phipps left the US State Department in December last year.
Her experience is a reflection of the power of lobbying organizations such as C-Fam when it comes to instilling a resolutely anti-abortion stance in the US State Department and US missions abroad.
The small but vocal organization plays a watchdog and coalition-building role at the UN, in which the US increasingly finds common cause with Russia, the Gulf Arab monarchies and the Holy See.
It in 2015 helped create a coalition at the UN called Group of Friends of the Family, which brought together countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Malaysia, Egypt and Iraq.
Once scorned by Western delegates as the “axis of medievals,” it is becoming, with US support, a powerful voice at the UN on social issues. C-Fam and Group of Friends of the Family on Wednesday last week convened a high-level meeting at the UN, as a show of strength of the anti-abortion, anti-LGBT lobby.
Ruse has helped forge a partnership between US social conservative groups and Orthodox Church “pro-family” organizations in Russia with close ties to Vladimir Putin. He met and praised Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch with extensive ties to the European far-right for “working to bring Russian Orthodox and US Christians closer together.”
“Malofeev and many other Russians see themselves as a Christian nation sent to help other Christians around the world,” Ruse wrote. “For them, at least, that’s why they support the al-Assad regime — he’s better for Syria’s Orthodox Christians.”
Ruse in 2017 also forged a bond with then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. In February that year, Ruse wrote a magazine article hailing Bannon as “brilliant, salty, visionary, and driven.”
The next month, Ruse wrote to Brian Hook congratulating the administration on its adoption of the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, cutting off US aid to any non-governmental organizations even indirectly involved with clinics providing or promoting abortion.
“Our team at C-Fam is preparing a brief for you on how to make sure it is implemented such that it has the effect the president intended,” Ruse wrote.
Hook replied later in the day promising to follow up, saying: “Steve Bannon and I spent time together today and talked about you. He’s a big fan.”
The outsize influence of C-Fam, and the increasing importance of evangelical Christians such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in the top reaches of the Trump administration has helped turn the tide on the world stage on issues involving women’s reproductive rights and access to family planning clinics.
“I think now what we have here is an administration that has individuals appointed on the inside who follow this really right-wing ideology that is anti-women,” Center for Health and Gender Equity president Serra Sippel said. “This is not coming from outside. It’s coming from inside.”
The global gag rule has led to the closure of family planning and women’s health clinics around the world, despite studies suggesting that diminished access to contraception and counseling increases the rate of unplanned pregnancies — and backstreet abortions.
The issue has driven a wedge between the US and its traditional allies, illustrated vividly last month when the German UN mission sought to focus its month-long presidency of the UN Security Council on a resolution bolstering accountability and victim support in the case of sexual violence in conflict.
The US stunned the Germans by threatening to veto the resolution over a single mention of reproductive and sexual health for victims of rape.
A clear message was sent from the US State Department, through the US embassy in Berlin and the mission to the UN, that Washington would not compromise.
“We were taken aback by how ferocious they were on this point,” a European diplomat said.
Rather than sacrifice the entire resolution addressing the use of mass rape as a weapon of war, the Germans stripped out the entire paragraph on healthcare for victims, so that — in theory — the language of a previous resolution from six years ago remained current.
“They totally gutted the resolution and perhaps it’s a wake-up call for those countries who assume that at the end of the day that perhaps the US will do the right thing. I don’t think it will. They made clear they won’t,” Center for Reproductive Rights global advocacy director Rebecca Brown said.
C-Fam did not respond to e-mailed questions about their influence and finances. Its tax return shows annual revenue from gifts and grants of about US$ 1.6 million, but gives no details of where it comes from.
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