Tue, May 21, 2019 - Page 9 News List

A right-wing group is changing the UN agenda on abortion

The outsize influence of C-Fam in the top reaches of the Trump administration is turning the tide internationally on issues involving women’s reproductive rights

By Julian Borger and Liz Ford  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

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.”

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