The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services joined the authoritarian governments of Hungary and Brazil to sponsor an “International Conference on Family Policy” that was held at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, the second in several months. White House domestic policy director Joe Grogan was among the speakers, along with HHS Special Representative for Global Women’s Health Valerie Huber and Rep. Andy Harris. Joining them were representatives of anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice religious-right groups.
Participants were greeted by Hungary’s ambassador to the U.S. László Szabó and Brazil’s Nestor Forster. Other speakers included Katalin Novák, Hungary’s minister of state for family and youth affairs, and a representative of the Polish government, who was a late addition to the schedule. Several U.S. anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ groups took part, including the Heritage Foundation, the National Right to Life Committee, Catholic Women’s Forum, C-FAM, and the American Principles project, in addition to Americans for Tax Reform.
U.S. religious-right leaders have long made it clear that they are more than willing to embrace oppressive governments as long as they promote “traditional” values on issues of sexuality, gender and family. Novák announced last week that she 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.
Despite his record of attacking democratic values, dismantling of checks and balances, and inflaming anti-Semitism, U.S. religious-right groups have treated Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán like a hero for his government’s “pro-family” policies and President Donald Trump rolled out the red carpet for Orbán earlier this year. Orbán hosted the World Congress of Families’ global summit in 2017. Amid a surge in homophobic rhetoric from top government officials, Hungary recently pulled out of the popular Eurovision song contest because it is “too gay.”
Similarly, U.S. right-wing leaders supported the campaign of Brazil’s strongman Jair Bolsonaro, who uses Trumpian rhetoric and defends torture carried out by the country’s former military dictatorship. Bolsonaro was also welcomed at the White House this year. As RWW noted in January after his swearing in, Bolsonaro wasted no time issuing executive orders and taking other actions attacking the people he had targeted in his campaign rhetoric: the LGBTQ community, indigenous people, descendants of former slaves, nonprofit organizations, and the media, as well as civil servants deemed not on board with Bolsonaro’s ideological agenda.
On Capitol Hill this week, Novák focused on Orbán government policies designed to encourage married couples to have large families, including a provision that grants women who have four children an exemption from paying personal income tax for the rest of their lives. Among the “values” that she said Hungary has put into law are the protection of life from the moment of conception and the definition of family as an entity grounded in marriage between one man and one woman. She encouraged activists to find more celebrity role models to talk about the importance of family and to find compelling rhetoric to fight terms like “pro-choice.”
White House adviser Grogan praised Hungary’s “courage” and leadership on family issues. He bragged about the Trump administration’s economic record and anti-abortion policies, saying the administration is tackling issues like affordable child care and paid family leave. On child care, he urged states and localities to cut back on what he described as burdensome regulations.
Grogan was followed by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who warned that cultures and civilizations will become extinct absent birthrates adequate to sustain them. (This also happens to be a common talking point among white nationalists.) He said that legislators should ask of every piece of legislation that comes before them whether the proposed law would benefit the nuclear family and discourage or encourage people from growing their families. Harris has been the recipient of significant financial support from the family of Michael Peroutka, a Christian Reconstructionist and neo-Confederate who also bankrolled the political career of Alabama’s former chief justice Roy Moore.
HHS’s Huber talked about the need to further reduce maternal mortality rates worldwide, citing a statistic that almost 800 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. She said those deaths could be prevented with better access to skilled health care, birth practitioners, and well-equipped hospitals. But Huber complained that the World Health Organization, in listing the leading causes of maternal deaths, includes deaths caused by unsafe abortions. She didn’t deny that unsafe abortion could be a cause of maternal mortality, but she said it should not be included on WHO’s list because it “diverts attention” away from solutions to other causes.
Huber complained that the WHO promotes “self-managed medical abortion” as “self care” in countries where abortion is illegal or restricted, which Huber said amounts to WHO “encouraging organizations to go behind the backs of countries that have any restrictions on abortion.” She concluded, “We have to oppose any attempt to conflate maternal mortality and abortion.” Before joining the Trump administration, Huber was an advocate for abstinence-only sex education, which anti-birth-control advocates have attempted to rebrand as “sexual risk avoidance.”
Other highlights from panelists and speakers:
- Stefano Gennarini represented C-FAM, which fights international recognition for reproductive rights or the rights of LGBTQ people. Gennarini complained that the U.S. is still partnering with such groups as the Gates Foundation to support “anti-natalist” policies that encourage women in developing countries to use contraception and limit the number of children they have. “We need to create division,” he said, by designing an “alternative ecosystem of pro-natalist policies.” Gennarini said American politicians should do more to politicize abortion-supporting and sex-ed-promoting international institutions like the United Nations. C-FAM has helped launch a number of anti-choice and anti-equality international groupings, including Civil Society for the Family and the Group of Friends of the Family, which includes many of the world’s most repressive governments.
- Carol Tobias of the National Right to Life Committee described abortion as a “scourge” and the source of problems including sex trafficking, divorce, suicide and euthanasia. She thanked the governments in the room, saying that without families “our society faces a cruel and bleak future.”
- Terry Schilling represented the American Principles Project, founded by religious-right megadonor Sean Fieler and anti-marriage-equality strategist Robert George. Schilling urged participants to look at the family as a political issue, because “our anti-natalist opponents” made it one. He also said families have an important impact on ideology and political worldview. “On the right-hand side of things, you have Mike Pence and his beautiful wife and three beautiful children,” he said, “and then on the left-hand side of the spectrum, you have the never-marrieds and cohabitating like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” So, he said, “if you want to be fiscally conservative and have limited government, family is incredibly important. And if you want socialism, make sure that no one gets married.”
- Charmaine Yoest, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Family, said it is important to acknowledge that there is an “ideological attack” on the institution of marriage. She said it is wrong to count on government to create a “great society” because the role for government is to “get out of the way” of families, churches and civil society. Yoest has completed the full 360-course in the Trump administration’s religious-right revolving door; before joining Heritage she worked at the White House, which she joined after promoting Trump’s candidacy as president of Americans United for Life.
- Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president of C-FAM, argued that the “long siege” against family formation and “war” on the family was a threat to world peace because demographic decline is making great powers like Russia and China less stable and more aggressive.
- Emilie Kao, director of Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, said her purpose on the panel was to “sound a warning” about the United Nations, pushing an ongoing right-wing attack against the U.N. She praised Hungary for restricting marriage to one man and one woman in its constitution, but said there is still a threat from the U.N. bureaucracy promoting evolving international theories around law and human rights. She criticized the U.N.’s Free and Equal campaign, denouncing former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for criticizing opposition to marriage equality as homophobia. She rejected the idea of connecting economic aid to support for LGBTQ human rights, saying “aid should not be conditioned on adopting values that are opposed to your culture and your religious beliefs.”
- Brazil’s Forster turned that sentiment into a Trumpian slogan, saying, “We need to make international organizations great again”—by ensuring that they respect countries’ sovereignty, culture and religious values.
The Trump administration’s Huber pronounced the day a “delight” and called for more cooperation. “I think we have a unique opportunity and a moment that we don’t want to let pass,” she said—a moment in which the invited leaders from several countries shared similar views on family, national sovereignty, parental control of sex ed, and opposition to abortion. She announced that an event will be held at Blair House—a U.S. government facility known as “the President’s Guest House” across the street from the White House—on January 16 to thank countries that have demonstrated “political will” and “moral courage” and acted to “preserve our countries and this civilization as it should be.”
Hungary’s Ambassador to the U.N. announced via Twitter this week that Brazil, Hungary, Poland and the U.S. have launched a “Partnership for Families.” Novák also referred to this partnership, telling reporters, “We announced it on Wednesday of this week in the U.N.,” adding that the group would work carry out “joint action against anti-family measures that are pushing family life into the background.”