On April 24 Mexico City passed a law allowing abortion on demand in the first three months of pregnancy. Previously, as in the rest of Mexico, abortion was outlawed except in the case of rape or foetal abnormality. In a region where the Catholic church is traditionally powerful, and access to abortion and contraception heavily restricted, this is being seen as an historic victory for women’s rights campaigners and perhaps the harbinger of more liberal abortion laws across the entire region.

It is to try and prevent just this kind of possibility that Christian pressure groups are increasing their propaganda efforts, including targeting international forums like the UN’s own committee on women’s rights. At a recent meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), for example, anti-abortion leaflets, many in Spanish specifically targeting the Latin American delegates, were highly visible. Among the false claims made by these tracts are that the contraceptive pill causes liver cancer, having a baby reduces your chance of getting breast cancer and that condoms cause sexually transmitted diseases.

The CSW is a “functional committee” of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which is to say that though its recommendations are not legally binding they do set international standards. It is influential on policies affecting women’s rights and health. Its meetings, held during two weeks each year at the UN in New York, are attended by official delegates from 45 countries and its recommendations, reached by consensus and contained in the document known as the “agreed conclusions”, provide important tools in the battle for the rights of women. It was through the work of the CSW, in their follow up to the Women’s World Conference in Beijing in 1995, that the UN belatedly recognized that human rights included the rights of women and girls.

Flyer produced by the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute discouraging contraceptionIn recent years this commission has been targeted by right-wing religious groups who are determined to prevent or undermine any commitment the commission might make to supporting women’s right to abortion and contraception, as well as homosexual rights or anything they see as undermining the sacred “natural” family.

The problem is that the only people who seem to be taking the work of the CSW seriously are these same fundamentalist pressure groups. At this year’s meeting in March, which I attended as a journalist, there was a conspicuous lack of mainstream media, while the activists of the right-wing Christian Concerned Women for America published a detailed daily report from the CSW by Janice Shaw Crouse, who in one report crowed that “the lack of media interest is one more sign that the influence of feminism is beginning to wane.”

“Despite their scepticism about the institution,” says Pam Chamberlain, a researcher for the progressive institute Public Eye who has written extensively about the Christian right at the UN, “over the past five years the NGOs of socially conservative groups have grown in number and gained power in the UN.” According to Chamberlain a new crop of determined right-wing Christian lobby groups have emerged to take on the work traditionally done by the Vatican. “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 Holy See.” Among this new crop of mainly American groups are Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (CFam), Human Life International (an organization of Catholic priests), American Life League, Focus on the Family, Heartbeat International, the Justice Foundation, National Right to Life Committee, United Families International and the Mormon-supported World Family Policy Centre.

While some of these groups have been around the UN for several years, the present climate in the US seems particularly favourable to their cause. Whereas in previous years anti-choice activists would shout at delegates in the corridors and picket at the gates, these groups now appear to feel they are part of the process, influential insiders. This has obviously been helped by the presence of a staunchly Christian White House. One of George Bush’s first acts in office was to reintroduce the Reagan-era “global gag rule”, which forbids recipients of US Aid giving women access to or information about abortion. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which has been on the table since 1979. This year’s US delegation contained two prominent Bush fundraisers and a woman named Pia Francesca Solenni, who in 2001 won a Pontifical Academies’ Prize presented by John Paul II for her PhD thesis – an analysis of feminist theories in light of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

At this year’s meeting the US delegation, with the enthusiastic backing of the Christian NGOs, tabled a controversial proposal on “sex selective abortion” or, as some conservatives like to call it, “female feticide”. This proposal reflects a new tactic of the anti-choice movement – the focus on the fact that in some countries female foetuses are aborted at a far higher rate than male. They hoped that this undoubted discrimination, a genuine problem, would give them leverage to institute restrictions on access to abortion more generally. In this case the proposal was defeated, opposed by a strange coalition of Canada and the European Union, traditionally liberal on the issue, and China and India, who would rather not draw attention to their own records on sex selection. One irony of the hard-line stance taken by these American lobbying groups is that they consider countries such as Libya, Sudan and Iran allies in their fight against social liberalisation.

As is often the case in international diplomacy, the arguments at the actual meetings can have an arcane quality which masks their real significance. Language matters enormously, but you need to be skilled to interpret the hidden codes. Listening to the impassioned conversations in a crowded café at the UN, I didn’t understand why pro-choice delegates were so worked up about the suggested omission of the word “comprehensive” before the phrase “sexuality health education”, until someone explained to me that it was code for the possibility of speaking openly about sexuality and alternatives to the traditional family.

According to Pam Chamberlain, the Bush administration, often working through their NGO proxies, have made it a specific aim to target the “suggestive language” at the UN. She writes that the US “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.”

In 2001 the Christian United Families International (UFI) even created a detailed “Pro-family Negotiating Guide” that suggests what words to include in documents at UN conferences. Each section is headed by a page that presents previously used words and phrases that support family values; oppose family values; or that “can turn a sentence or paragraph towards support”.

In addition to the formal proceedings of the commission the fortnight sees a host of associated events, many of which are organised by groups not officially recognised by the UN. Panels this year included “Womanhood and Motherhood: How to be a World Changer,” hosted by Endeavour Forum Inc, and “Complete Equality: Gain or Loss” hosted by the International Islamic Committee for Woman and Child. Some organisations are explicit about their religious affiliations while others present themselves as human rights advocates or objective science-based projects.
One such organisation is the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute, whose garish brochures were littered around the commission break out rooms. One features a baseball player and a cheerleader on the cover with the headline: “If it’s not OK for him to take steroids … why is it OK for her?” It warned that women develop liver cancer and cervical cancer from oral contraceptives.

Flyer produced by the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute claiming breast feeding reduces risk of breast cancerWhen I tracked down the founders, Dr Joel Brind and Dr Angela Lanfranchi, they were thrilled to hear I had found their brochure and they produced another “even better” one. This featured a woman breast-feeding. Inside there was a graph of “breast lobule maturation” during pregnancy. It described how a young woman lowers her risk of developing breast cancer by having a baby. “So”, explained Dr Lanfranchi, “if a woman is 18 and has an unplanned pregnancy, she could know, well, there’s a silver lining. She’ll lower her breast cancer rate.”

Dr Brind, an endocrinologist, has been working for more than 20 years to prove that abortions cause cancer. The science he cites is widely discredited, but he claims this is because his views are “unpopular” and “politically incorrect”. He assured me that he was a “typical New Yorker” who doesn’t have Christian conservative views or hang-ups about sex. There is no mention of God or Christianity on their website, which nevertheless advocates “natural family planning”. They told me that condoms can give you sexually transmitted diseases that lead to “cancer in the womb”.

But according to a 2004 Washington Monthly article by Chris Mooney, Dr Brind has written that finding Jesus was an important milestone in his work as a scientist. In a magazine published by Focus on the Family, the leading religious right group in the United States, Dr Brind wrote, “With a new belief in a meaningful universe, I felt compelled to use science for its noblest, life-saving purpose.”

Other leaflets – many in Spanish targeting the Latin American delegates – ask “What does God say about Abortion?” or “How many abortions are necessary?” The answer in bold, red letters is “ZERO”. Many of the groups producing this material are openly hostile to the UN itself, which they perceive as representing a disastrous liberal agenda on social policy issues, yet they keep coming to meetings because they feel they can influence the delegations and neuter the language of the recommendations. They can also increase their status with their grass roots support. Obtaining NGO observer status at the UN sounds grand, and ordinary citizens have no clue that virtually anybody can organise an event at the CSW.

Though anti-choice campaigners are gaining influence they do not yet hold sway over the CSW. It continues to be a strong advocate for women’s equality and its recommendations have real effects. The American Civil Liberties Union found evidence that teenage girls in detention centres suffer abuse. When they could not get the American government to respond, they approached the Turkish delegation to the CSW and persuaded them to suggest new paragraphs to the document about women and girls in prisons. These were included in the agreed conclusions, and can now form the basis of lobbying efforts to improve conditions for young women incarcerated in the US.

The real issue is that the religious right has gained ground on territory that had previously been the preserve of the women’s rights movement. Just as with the campaigns against evolution in America, the religious right are flexible, determined, organised and well funded. They have learnt that they can effect great changes by exploiting the relatively open structures of small groups in the voluntary sector.

They are also skilled in presenting their ideas in ways appropriate to the audience, like employing the language of rights or hard science to achieve their ends. Faced with this, those who support equal rights, reproductive choice, sex education and access to contraception need to up their game, or risk the good work of the CSW being trampled under a stampede of religious conservatism. ■

Solana Larsen
is a freelance journalist. Read more about the CSW at her blog for openDemocracy Women UNlimited (statusofwomen.wordpress.com/)