U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar joined representatives from Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, and Uganda Thursday in a virtual ceremony to launch the “Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family.”
During the Obama administration, U.S. foreign policy supported reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality, while resistance and backlash to those principles were being led by religious-right advocacy groups, often in partnership with the world’s most repressive regimes. But during the Trump administration, the U.S. government has been mobilizing the reactionary forces. Pompeo and Azar have been working for at least a year and a half to mobilize Thursday’s signing of the Geneva Consensus.
The anti-abortion and anti-choice language of the declaration is explicit while wrapped in broad language about supporting women’s health. It draws language from other international agreements about the need to provide children with “special measures of protection” and “safeguards … before as well as after birth.” Speakers from the sponsoring nations all insisted that they would oppose any effort by any United Nations body to assert that access to abortion is recognized in international human rights law. Pompeo praised the Trump administration’s “unprecedented defense of the unborn abroad” and said he hoped that the declaration’s “moral clarity” will embolden others.
The anti-LGBTQ agenda of the coalition is less explicit in the language of the declaration itself—which draws on language from the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights to reaffirm that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.” But Hungary’s Minister of State for Family, Youth and International Affairs Katalin Novák was more explicit, denouncing international forces that she charged were trying to “weaken the traditional family” through a “culture of indoctrination and preaching” at the U.N. and the promotion of “gender ideology,” “ideological neocolonialism,” and sex education.
Novák said that the right-wing anti-LGBTQ governments of Hungary and Poland are playing a leading role in promoting and strengthening the “traditional family.” Uganda’s health minister, Jane Aceng, criticized international pressure to support policies that “may be contrary to our values” and called for “due respect for our values and sovereignty.”
Notably, the document affirms that “universal health coverage is fundamental” in achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals while recognizing that governments will “determine their own path towards achieving universal health coverage”—in the U.S., that path seems headed in the opposite direction as the Trump administration urges the Supreme Court to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and strip health care coverage from millions of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.
18 Months in the Making: Pompeo and Azar Organizing at the United Nations
The Geneva Consensus Declaration event was a culmination of the Trump administration’s intensive efforts to build opposition to any international recognition of a right to abortion—and Pompeo and Azar’s zeal to undermine international recognition of the rights of LGBTQ people while celebrating governmental enforcement of “traditional” religious values on gender, sexuality, and family. They’ve been working on developing this new coalition for about a year and a half.
Last July, Pompeo and Azar sent a letter to foreign governments asking them to “join the United States in ensuring that every sovereign state has the ability to determine the best way to protect the unborn and defend the family as the foundational unit of society vital to children thriving and leading healthy lives.” The letter warned that “ambiguous” terms like “sexual and reproductive health and rights” are associated with “anti-family and pro-abortion policies.” The July letter built on a statement distributed in May by the governments of the U.S., Brazil, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Haiti, Ghana, Nigeria, and Iraq making the same argument. Since then, the U.S. has been working to expand this coalition.
In September 2019, on the eve of Trump’s address to the U.N. General Assembly, Azar released a similar statement, this one endorsed by a larger number of nations: United States of America, Bahrain, Belarus, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Poland, Republic of the Congo, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Just a month later, the U.S. issued a statement arguing that governments could better work together to improve access to health care if they avoided “divisive” topics. “The United States firmly believes that we can do more for people by coming together on those broad areas of agreement on which we can achieve genuine progress, rather than pursuing divisive policies that promote abortion, diminish the role of the family, and compromise the sovereignty of nations by focusing on sensitive issues where we know consensus is not possible,” the U.S. statement said in part.
Comprehensive sex education, a target of the World Congress of Families and right-wing culture warriors around the globe, was also singled out by the U.S. government. “We remain deeply concerned that comprehensive sexuality education programs undermine the protective role of the family in such education and condone harmful sexual risks for young people,” the U.S. statement said. “We continue to be a stalwart defender of all women, men, children, and families and support programs to improve their health, life, dignity, and well-being.”
The Trump team’s organizing continued with a November session and statement released during the Nairobi Summit on the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development, which was first held in Cairo in 1994. And in December, the Department of Health and Human Services and the governments of Hungary and Brazil sponsored an “International Conference on Family Policy” that was attended by White House domestic policy director Joe Grogan. The event also featured anti-choice and anti-marriage-equality activists from the U.S. religious right.
In December, Hungary and Brazil cosponsored a public gathering at which HHS Special Representative for Global Women’s Health Valerie Huber—an abstinence education advocate—thanked countries that have demonstrated “political will” and “moral courage” and acted to “preserve our countries and this civilization as it should be.” Azar singled out Huber for praise at Thursday’s ceremony.
This year, on Jan. 16, Azar addressed a closed-door meeting of 35 nations at Blair House, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. “Together, we built a pro-life, pro-family, pro-sovereignty coalition that is a force to be reckoned with,” Azar declared of the 2019 organizing efforts. But, he added, “our informal coalition needs to grow and be more active.”
Joining Azar in January were Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and representatives of two authoritarian leaders compared to and praised by President Donald Trump: Hungary’s Novák and Brazil’s deputy chief of mission] in Washington, Minister-Counselor Fernando Pimentel. Azar also read a letter from Uganda’s Aceng, whom Azar called “one of our strongest and most reliable partners.”
At that event, Azar encouraged countries to continue to build momentum by attending “an upcoming global women’s health conference” in Geneva, Switzerland, in May, just before the start of the World Health Assembly. That is where the consensus declaration was to be finalized, but COVID-19 derailed that gathering. Presumably with an eye on the U.S. elections, sponsors decided to push forward with the release of the statement before the group meets next year.
All this official business builds on the work being done by an extensive network of religious-right legal and political groups. Hungary’s Novák has met with representatives of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious-right legal giant that opposes LGBTQ equality in the U.S. and has defended criminalization of homosexuality in other countries. “We agree that there is a great need for closer cooperation among international pro-family stakeholders in defending #family values,” Novák tweeted last November.
C-FAM, which works relentlessly to promote anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ policies at the U.N., cheered Azar’s January remarks. And C-FAM’s Austin Ruse, was quick to put out a statement Thursday “heartily” congratulating the Trump administration and the 32 nations that have signed the new declaration.