Revealed: the fringe rightwing group changing the UN agenda on abortion rights (2024)

Last spring, Laurie Shestack Phipps, a diplomat at the US mission to the UN, received a set of talking points from the state department before an international women’s conference, setting out clear red lines against mention of “sexual and reproductive health” care.

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This had become the norm in the Trump administration, where 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, 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, or C-Fam.

C-Fam has emerged from the extreme right fringe on abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity to become a powerful player behind the scenes at the UN. With a modest budget and a six-strong staff led by the president Austin Ruse, it has leveraged connections inside the Trump administration to enforce a rigid orthodoxy on social issues, and helped build a new US coalition with mostly autocratic regimes that share a similar outlook.

And that coalition has already 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 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 the 2018 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 emailing Nikki Haley’s staff talking about the language, giving line-by-line instructions,” Phipps said. “It was highly inappropriate for a non-government organisation to be giving line-by-line instructions. C-Fam would be sending emails which would be regurgitated in US cables.”

During the 2018 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 changed its name to avoid confusion with official organs of the Holy See.

In 2012 Ruse, C-Fam’s president, 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”.

Although Ruse horrified Catholic liberals, he denied that the organisation’s name change was at the request of the church hierarchy.

He said in an email: “The name was long and unwieldy and not even my mom could remember it.” He added: “Because Catholic was in our title, we were often confused with the institutional church and determined this was not fair for the Holy See, and … we wanted to broaden our appeal with regard to our scholarship and our fundraising.”

Once Trump took office, however, Ruse became an insider, able to command attention from top state department officials. In March 2017, he wrote to the head of the state department’s powerful policy planning unit, Brian Hook, and other senior political appointees at the agency, complaining that only one anti-abortion group was part of the US delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) that year.

Ruse wrote. “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, even under the Bush administration, that she is not with the administration on these important issues.”

Pam Pryor, a former aide to Sarah Palin, who had been given a senior adviser job in the state department office of 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 CSW conference, 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 her position, but she found it increasingly hard to represent an increasingly rigid US position on healthcare for women.

The breaking point came in April 2018 at the UN Commission on Population and Development, where member states tried to hammer out consensus positions. For most of the week of the conference, the US delegation helped draft a joint statement that included references to reproductive and sexual health (RSH), that had been the result of past compromises during the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

“On the last day, I got new instructions,” Phipps recalled. “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 state department in December.

Her experience is a reflection of the power of lobbying organizations like C-Fam when it comes to instilling a resolutely anti-abortion stance in the state department and US missions abroad.

The small but vocal organization plays a watchdog and coalition-building role at the UN, where the US increasingly finds common cause with Russia, the Gulf Arab monarchies and the Holy See.

In 2015 it helped create a coalition at the UN called Group of Friends of the Family (Goff), which brought together countries like 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. On Wednesday, C-Fam and Goff 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 “pro-family” church organisations 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.

Ruse wrote: “Malofeev and many other Russians see themselves as a Christian nation sent to help other Christians around the world. For them, at least, that’s why they support the Assad regime. He’s better for Syria’s Orthodox Christians.”

In 2017, Ruse also forged a bond with Trump’s then chief strategist, Steve Bannon. In February that year, he 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, which cuts off US aid to any non-governmental organisations (NGOs) 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 and noting: “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 – like the 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.

Serra Sippel, the president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, said: “I think now what we have here is an administration that has individuals appointed on the inside who follow this really rightwing ideology that is anti-women. 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 which suggest that diminished access to contraception and counseling increases the rate of unplanned pregnancies, and backstreet abortions.

It 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 security council on a resolution bolstering accountability and victim support in 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 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 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,” said Rebecca Brown, the director of global advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

C-Fam did not respond to emailed questions about its influence and finances. Its tax return shows annual revenue from gifts and grants of about $ 1.6m but gives no details of where it comes from. As a non-profit, it does not have to identify its supporters.

Revealed: the fringe rightwing group changing the UN agenda on abortion rights (2024)
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