Global Policy Forum

Conservatives Step Up Activities Overseas


By Daniel Crary

Associated Press
January 14, 2006

From Peru to the Philippines to Poland, U.S.-based conservative groups are increasingly engaged in abortion and family-planning debates overseas, emboldened by their ties with the Bush administration and eager to compete with more liberal rivals. The result is that U.S. advocacy groups are now waging their culture war skirmishes worldwide as they try to influence other countries' laws and wrangle over how U.S. aid money should be spent.

"We don't expect to see the United Nations change, or Western Europe change," said Joseph d'Agostino of the Population Research Institute, a Virginia-based anti-abortion group. "But with the Bush administration, pro-lifers feel there's a real opportunity to stop the U.S. government from promoting abortion and sex education and population control in the Third World."

Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America said U.S. conservatives are trying to counter the influence long exercised by women's rights and abortion rights groups at U.N. conferences and among international non-governmental organizations. "NGOs have tremendous power, but for so many years they have been the playground for the leftist activists," Crouse said. "It's only been during the Bush administration that those of us from the right have had an opportunity to be on a level playing field."

Liberal activists believe long-term trends, notably the empowerment of women through education and jobs, work in their favor throughout much of the world. But they acknowledge that U.S. conservatives have gained clout overseas - and intimidated some foreign advocacy groups - because of their influence on Bush administration policies.

"The collaboration of right-wing NGOs and the Bush administration far exceeds any collaboration between pro-choice family groups and the Clinton administration," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "We never had that kind of hand-in-glove relationship." She said the Bush administration, with limited power to impose conservative social policies at home, has implemented some foreign-aid restrictions demanded by the religious right - such as the so-called "global gag rule" that denies federal family-planning money to any foreign group that even discusses the possibility of abortions for clients.

Conservative groups, notably the Population Research Institute, also are credited by both allies and foes with convincing the Bush administration to withhold U.S. funding from the U.N. Population Fund. At issue are conservative allegations, vehemently denied by the Population Fund, that the U.N. agency indirectly contributes to coercive abortions in China. "The far right says, 'Jump,' and the administration says, 'How high?'" complained Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who wants the Population Fund money restored.

Some current examples of conservative activity overseas:

* Several prominent U.S. groups, including Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council, are helping prepare for a World Congress of Families in Poland in May 2007. The chief organizer, Allan Carlson of the Rockford, Ill.-based Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, said U.S. conservatives view Poland - where the new president staunchly opposes abortion and gay marriage - as a rare holdout to liberal, secular trends throughout the European Union.

* In Peru, the Population Research Institute filed a complaint with the U.S. Agency for International Development, contending that two local groups had violated U.S. policy by using American funds to promote legalization of the morning-after pill. Both groups were warned, and one will have to return some funds, according to PRI's d'Agostino.

* In Colombia, PRI has assisted local conservatives in opposing a legal challenge to the country's sweeping ban on abortions. Though rebuffed by the Constitutional Court last month, women's rights activists plan to file a new lawsuit seeking to end Colombia's status as one of three Latin American countries prohibiting all abortions.

* Several U.S. conservative groups have been helping rally opposition to family-planning legislation pending in the Philippines. The bill would provide some financial incentives for parents who limit themselves to two children; critics also say it goes too far in promoting sex education and access to birth control.

* American conservatives have strongly supported Bush administration policies emphasizing abstinence as a favored strategy in overseas HIV/AIDS prevention programs. U.S.-based groups focusing on abstinence have received grants for prevention work in Africa, in some cases drawing criticism that political ties overcame their lack of expertise.

Activists on both sides trace the rise of overseas conservative action to the mid-1990s, after anti-Communism faded as a cause and anti-abortion, anti-feminist groups began engaging in major U.N. conferences - often taking stands in opposition to the Clinton administration.

Now, with Bush as president, they feel empowered. Carmen Barroso, director of International Planned Parenthood's Western Hemisphere Region, said conservatives have been particularly active in Latin America. "They are very organized, with lots of resources and powerful allies in the White House and the Vatican," she said. "Whenever there's a major initiative to liberalize laws, they marshal their forces against it. In the past, it was one or two isolated efforts. Now it's a massive effort."

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