FEATURES | fall 2004
The Illinois-based World Congress of Families wants governments to decide what's natural
Poised and stiffly coiffed, Ellen Sauerbrey came to the stage at Mexico City’s new Centro Banamex convention center with a seemingly warmhearted message from her boss, George W. Bush.
“As one of the pillars of civilization, families must remain strong and we must defend them during a time of great change,” recited Sauerbrey, U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.
“My administration,” she continued, “has taken important steps to promote strong families, preserve the sanctity of marriage and protect the well-being of children.”
Such sentiments were repeated throughout the three-day World Congress of Families (WCF), a late-March gathering that drew more than 3,300 delegates.
This was the third Congress held in the past seven years, all of which have brought together the leadership of an increasingly trenchant and powerful wing of the international conservative movement.
The conference’s theme —“The Natural Family and the Future of Nations: Growth, Development and Freedom”— sounds benign and uncontroversial; in reality, it’s a strategic camouflage for a familiar set of favorite ultraconservative causes: an intolerant version of heterosexuality and marriage that precludes recognition of gay unions, is anti-abortion, anti-contraception and anti-sex education.
Speaker after speaker warned that the survival of the family is imperiled. The culprits are the usual suspects: “radical feminists,” single mothers, divorcées and homosexuals.
And the solution? Government intervention, of course.
From Midwest Roots to Global Designs
The WCF originally hailed from Rockford, Ill., where The Rockford Institute — which begat the WCF’s main organizer, The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society — was founded in 1976 by John A. Howard to represent “the authentic voice of the American Heartland.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified it as “paleo-conservative,” exposing its links to hate groups like the League of the South and the Council of Conservative Citizens.
By 1995, the Institute, under the leadership of its then-president, Allan Carlson, began planning the World Congress of Families.
Its guiding idea was to try and reshape the international political landscape around issues of family and sexuality by forming an international coalition of right-wing secular and religious organizations. Two years later, there was enough support and funding for a first congress, in Prague.
That same year, Carlson broke with The Rockford Institute to form The Howard Center (named for Rockford’s founder), which became the sponsor and host of all subsequent congresses. The Howard Center’s stated mission is to provide research demonstrating that the natural family and religion are the bedrock of modern society.
The first World Congress of Families drew about 700 participants, the second (Geneva, 1999) more than twice as many, representing 275 secular and religious organizations from 65 countries. The Geneva meeting was notable for the large number of Mormon participants and for its collegial, almost festive atmosphere.
Vanguard of Conservatism
It took five years to stage this third Congress, the numbers doubling yet again, and the Centro Banamex was teeming with crowds that reflected the organization’s growing luster.
A who’s who of U.S. anti-abortion think tanks were represented, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, Human Life International, Population Research Institute and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.
Also in attendance were leaders of the international movement against women’s and gay rights, including three high-ranking Catholic cardinals of Mexico’s well-heeled financial elite.
The WCF is more than just a meeting place for likeminded conservatives to share their fears about gay marriage and abortion; its objective is to reverse progressive social initiatives on reproductive rights, gay rights and population issues, particularly those negotiated at the United Nations.
That means, for example, trying to undermine programs at agencies such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which promotes family planning, sexual and reproductive rights, sex education and condom use.
The United States has now joined this right-wing coalition, and on issues of women’s rights and reproductive rights U.S. delegations have aligned themselves with The Holy See (the Vatican’s representative at the U.N.), Muslim countries and conservative Catholic and African nations.
Many of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) participating in the World Congress of Families are tied into this loose coalition, and many of them already have consultative status at the U.N., which allows them to attend meetings and lobby policy-makers.
Recent U.N. summits dealing with women, population and development have provided ample evidence of the WCF’s inroads, as ultraconservative delegates have tried to force anti-abortion and anti-contraception language into conference documents.
At this year’s World Congress of Families, for the first time, the U.S. government gave its explicit endorsement of the so-called pro-family agenda, with Sauerbrey speaking forcefully about Bush administration efforts to counter “attacks” on the “natural” family, including the nascent movement in favor of gay marriage.
Sauerbrey also announced that the U.S. is working within the U.N. to prevent documents that support the “family in its various forms” from being codified. Sauerbrey’s reference to “family in its various forms” was one of the conference’s more oblique allusions to the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage, topics that dominated many talks.
Farooq Hassan of United Families International was more direct: He flatly declared that homosexuality was a sexual perversion, and therefore not eligible for consideration as a human right.
Allan Carlson, the WCF’s soft-spoken organizer, didn’t mince words either: “Since homosexual marriage is a clear and present danger to the family…the issue is high on everyone’s agenda,” he said in his address.
“Governments don’t create families. They can recognize and nurture them, or destabilize and delegitimize them. Homosexual marriage is the most potent weapon yet devised for the latter.”
Outside of the U.N. context, the World Congress of Families is targeting specific countries as beachheads for its agenda.
After the second congress, “pro-family” organizations were established in a dozen countries such as Russia, Ireland, the Philippines and Argentina — logical targets for proselytizing because of their Catholic and Christian traditions.
The increasingly international face of WCF was on display in Mexico City , where first-timers included Morocco, Italy, India, Latvia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Qatar. The latter country will host another “pro-family” conference in November, concluding a series of regional gatherings known collectively as The Doha International Conference for the Family.
Despite its billing as “perhaps the most important official event of the [United Nation’s] 2004 International Year of the Family,” the event is not affiliated with the U.N. Despite its successes, missing from this conservative alliance at the United Nations is the support of a majority of Latin American countries.
Conservative groups have long believed that Latin Americans are their natural allies on “family issues” because of their Catholic heritage. But the two largest countries in the region, Brazil and Mexico, have been especially vocal in support of progressive social measures at the U.N.
At a regional meeting on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Mexico City this past June, pro-choice organizations prevailed against the U.S. delegation — again led by Ellen Sauerbrey — and its allies, El Salvador and Nicaragua, who argued against the inclusion of the term “sexual and reproductive rights” in the final document.
Called the “Mexico City Consensus,” this document will be presented at next year’s Beijing +10 Conference, the 10-year follow-up to the Fourth World Conference on Women.
That Mexico City victory was hard-won, though, as several delegations from Central America claimed that Washington threatened to revoke financial aid if they didn’t support their viewpoint. Sauerbrey denies such threats were made.
Despite this defeat, the Bush administration can still point to some success at promoting its anti-choice agenda in Latin America:
This past April, six Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Uruguayan senators urging them to defeat a bill to legalize abortion in that country. The bill was defeated by three votes.
The choice of Mexico City as the venue for the third WCF was strategically savvy: Having identified Latin America as the missing link in U.N. negotiations, the conservative movement is making a concerted effort to recruit them to their cause.
And the proposed site for the next WCF? Brazil.
“Where Latin America goes,” said William Saunders, a senior fellow and director at the Family Research Council, in his address to the WCF in Mexico City, “the world goes.”
Gillian Kane is a writer and researcher in New York City .