"This is a war": Inside the global "pro-family" movement against abortion and LGBT rights


World Congress of Families summit in Budapest. Photo: Claire Provost.

by Claire Provost

In a darkened hall at the Budapest Congress Centre, an image of the classic American TV show, The Brady Bunch, appears illuminated on a giant screen. At the podium is Jack Hanick, a former Fox News producer who describes television as “at the centre of a spiritual war”.

Hanick points to the 1950s as the golden age, when “the father was the central figure” and “the mother stayed at home.” The Bradys were not his wholesome ideal but the beginning of the decay: a “blended family” of stepparents and stepchildren, where the father “has power over only half of the children”.

Fast forward to today and the hit sitcom Modern Family “idealises same sex marriage”. This, Hanick said, is the latest chapter in “TV’s role in the destruction of the traditional family”. He claimed: “This is a war, but it is not a war to be waged in the physical world”.

Hanick was in Hungary in late May for the 11th World Congress of Families summit, with hundreds of other anti-abortion and anti-LGBT activists and their political allies from across the globe. The conference programme described its goal as “to unite and equip leaders to promote the natural family”.

Speakers were explicit: this means a married mother and father and their children. They name-checked diverse fights against comprehensive sexuality education, abortion, same-sex marriage, “gender ideology,” surrogacy, and euthanasia.

But they called for positive, “winning messages,” alliances, and strategies that go after “hearts and minds” – recalling the shorthand used repeatedly by the US for winning over supporters and public opinion in the context of wars.

Several speakers talked specifically about “appropriating the language” of human rights to bolster conservative campaigns.

Attendees included anti-abortion celebrities like Lila Rose, founder of Live Action – the online “pro-life” movement using new media to “target millennial women.” Others came from groups like the National Organisation for Marriage (NOM) and the Alliance for the Defence of Freedom (ADF).

These groups are well-known to women’s rights activists. In the US, the WCF has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as an anti-LGBT “hate group”. The progressive thinktank Political Research Associates says it’s among “the major driving forces behind the US Religious Right’s global export of homophobia and sexism”.

NOM was formed in 2007 specifically to pass California’s Proposition 8 bill to prohibit same-sex marriage. ADF also focuses on legal advocacy. Its founder, Alan Sears, co-wrote a book called The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.

On the WCF programme there were pastors and bishops along with MPs, activists and academics. Delegates came from around the world, including Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, and Kenya. Many were from Hungary and the US.

The theme of the summit – “Building Family-Friendly Nations: Making Families Great Again” – included a hint of the “Make America Great Again” slogan used by US President Donald Trump in his election campaign.

Registration was free – though “VIP” tickets were also available at $350 per person, or $500 per married couple, including special receptions, lunches, and a “networking lounge.” There was also an extra one-day European pro-life forum.

After lunch, participants split into groups for sessions like “family advocacy at international institutions” and an “emerging leaders pro-family training” focused on “how to win at networking, campaigning, fundraising and advocacy.”

Budapest family festival. Photo: Claire Provost.

There was music, and games too. On Saturday night: a “Symphony of Life.” And on Sunday: a “Viva Familia” Family Festival in Budapest. “We are the builders of the new culture that… will span the globe,” said one speaker at the summit. “We need to redeem Hollywood,” said another.

From South Africa, one speaker said that, after the fall of apartheid in 1994, “the doors were thrown open and an ultra-liberal constitution was imposed on us…and all kinds of wickedness came into South Africa including pornography”.

The “LGBT agenda” he added, “is an ideology that’s been imposed on us…it is not part of African culture, it is imported from other nations”.

“This is a war,” he insisted.

A transnational “anti-rights” alliance

For years women’s rights activists have warned that groups pushing back against rights related to gender and sexuality have become increasingly organised and interconnected. Last year, a new Observatory on the Universality of Rights (OURs) was set up by more than a dozen organisations to monitor these groups.

Their first report, released last month, mapped how a “transnational community” of “anti-rights actors” has formed and the impact it’s had on “watering down of existing agreements… deadlock and conservatism in negotiations; sustained undermining of UN agencies… and success in pushing through regressive language in international human rights documents”.

Mapping anti-rights groups and connections. Infographic: OURs initiative.

At the Budapest summit, WCF president Brian Brown said “something new is happening.” He insisted: “what unites us is so fundamental…we have to be willing to speak together.”

Several speakers said “the family” is a “common cause” between countries including Russia and the US regardless of other tensions.

One man said explicitly that attendees should “appropriate” human rights language and use positive messages of love, joy, peace and hope to draw people in.

Another stressed the “key to winning any campaign” is to “bring the majority of the public”. He said: “that’s a war of culture, of a whole society”.

After the event, a delegate from the Philippines said the WCF has “created a new model of cooperation between government and national and international family organisations on the defense of human life, the family and marriage”.

In the Philippines, abortion has been criminalised for over a century and President Rodrigo Duterte has recently said the country will not legalise same-sex marriage, stressing that it is Asia’s bastion of Roman Catholicism. Last month, Duterte also “joked” with soldiers on Mindanao island, where he imposed martial law, that they could rape women with impunity.

In a session at the Budapest summit, Claudio D’Amico read a statement from Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian right-wing Lega Nord (“Northern League”) party, urging collaboration to defend the “natural family” that is “constantly being threatened”.

D’Amico said pro-family agreements can be struck between MPs from diverse parties. Last year, he said, he helped organise a “Family Lunch” with representatives from countries including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Sweden and Switzerland, on the sidelines of an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) parliamentary assembly.

World Congress of Families summit in Budapest. Photo: Claire Provost.

A representative from the Dveri party in Serbia said support from the WCF was “life-changing.” In 2013, “we managed to stop the Gay Pride parade in our capital city,” he said to applause. “We’re looking at our neighbours, the Hungarians, as an example of how to create a family-friendly country,” he added.

Hungary is “the hero of pro-family and pro-life leaders from all over the world,” according to the WCF website, celebrating the government’s “defense of family, life, and Christianity”.

The summit itself had opened with a “pugnacious speech” by Hungarian President Viktor Orban, in which he claimed the European Union was dominated by a “liberal ideology that’s an insult to families”. The Guardian called Hungary’s hosting of the summit “the latest episode in Orban’s quest to position himself as a self-styled defender of “European Christian values”, a role he has used to justify his Fidesz government’s draconian treatment of mainly Muslim refugees and migrants”.

Under Orban’s leadership, Hungary has defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, and life as beginning at conception, in its new 2011 constitution. The government has also introduced new policies to promote large families with many children in particular.

Access to abortion, while legal, has been limited by “unnecessary waiting periods, hostile counselling or conscientious objection,” according to a UN working group. Homophobic remarks have been made at the highest level, including by the mayor of Budapest who in 2015 reportedly said homosexuality is “unnatural and repulsive”.

Many of the summit attendees were from the US where Vice President Michael Pence – an “evangelical Catholic” – declared that “life is winning again in America” at an anti-abortion rally in January.

Trump’s administration has already reinstated and expanded the ‘Global Gag Rule‘ prohibiting US foreign aid money from going to organisations that provide or even give information about abortion. It has also defunded the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Earlier this year, the US government’s official delegation to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women meetings in New York also included an activist from the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM) – a key player in the “pro-family” lobby at the international level. Among other things, C-FAM sends out e-mail newsletters with subject lines like: “Anti-Christians Continue Attack on Pro-Lifers, Your Help Needed” and “8 Days and Counting…Radical Feminists Descend on UN”.

“Positive stories”

The OURs report warned that “anti-rights actors are making inroads into human rights standards” with growing numbers and networks and “imaginative and sustained re-conceptions of what human rights norms should and do mean”.

At the international level, it said, these groups “are no longer merely on the defensive or reactive; they are strategic and proactive”. Their goal, it suggested, is to insert and insist on language at the international human rights level “that validates patriarchal, hierarchical, discriminatory and culturally relativist norms”.

Numerous alternative or parallel human rights declarations and documents have been drawn up and promoted by these groups over the years including the Declaration on Rights of Children and their Families, the Family Articles, the World Family Declaration, the Declaration on the Rights of the Family, the Decalogue of Commitments for Human Dignity and the Common Good, and the San Jose Articles – which assert state responsibility to “protect the unborn child from abortion”.

The WCF summit closed with its own declaration – a “Budapest covenant.” It says: “The natural family is the true reservoir of liberty and the foundation of effective democracy”. For avoidance of doubt, it defines this natural family as one man and one woman, married, for life, for “the purposes of procreation”.

It calls on “peoples and nations to make new alliances” for the “natural family” and put it “at the centre of political and cultural life”.

In his speech, Hanick, the former Fox News producer, insisted, more specifically: “To restore the natural family we must use TV.”

“As more positive stories about any topic appear, public opinion in the US moves,” he said, adding that, when this happens, politicians and courts move too. He closed with a specific challenge to the audience: to “get one positive story about the natural family up every three months on your local TVs”.

Once that’s accomplished, he said, try for every month, then every week, then every day. “Public opinion will change,” he declared. For single, divorced and unmarried parents, LGBT communities, and the reproductive rights of women everywhere, it was an ominous promise indeed.

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About the Author:

Claire Provost is editor of openDemocracy 50.50 focussed on gender, pluralism and social justice. Previously Claire worked at The Guardian on the Global development section of the website and was a fellow at the Centre for Investigative Journalism at the University of London, Goldsmiths. Her writing has been published in Mother Jones and the Los Angeles Review of Books among other outlets, and has received support from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.