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Crowd at a rally against SB 8 at the Texas Capitol, with a sign reading "abortion is a miracle" in October 2021 (Jno.Skinner via Wikimedia Commons)

How the US Christian Right Funds Anti-Abortion Activities Abroad

Right-wing US groups have spotted an opportunity to ramp up their activities since Roe v. Wade’s repeal.

Words: Katy Fallon
Pictures: Jno.Skinner

In April 2023, Janet K. Museveni, Uganda’s first lady, published a photo on social media that rang serious alarm bells for advocates of reproductive and LGBTQ rights. The photo sparked concern because of a specific person in it: Sharon Slater, who heads the US nonprofit Family Watch International. The organization describes its work as “strengthening the family,” but the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has designated it as a hate group for its efforts to “further anti-LBGT and anti-choice stances.” 

The SPLC is one of several rights groups and monitors that have called attention to the work of Slater and Family Watch International. More worrisome still, the photo of Museveni and Slater came shortly after Uganda’s parliament passed harsh anti-gay legislation that allows for a life-sentence for adults convicted of engaging in consensual, same-sex intercourse. Family Watch International did not reply to a request for comment, but the group has previously denied claims it had lobbied or advocated for the bill. 

In 2020, openDemocracy published an investigation that revealed how Family Watch International had been “coaching” high-ranking African politicians and religious leaders how to craft campaigns against sex education and LGBTQ rights. Between 2007 and 2020, openDemocracy estimated in a separate report, more than 20 US Christian Right groups known for campaigning against abortion access and LGBTQ rights had dolled out some $54 million in funds across Africa. 

‘Undermining’ African Efforts

In June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that designated access to abortion a constitutional right. That move appeared to boost the confidence of some US groups lobbying for anti-abortion measures across Africa, according to Sarah Shaw of MSI Reproductive Choices, a global charity that provides contraception and safe abortion services in dozens of countries around the world. 

“Decisions made in the US have an impact far beyond their borders,” Shaw said, explaining that the end of Roe v. Wade led to “the emboldening of some US-based organizations” seeking to “undermine the efforts of countries across Africa to recognize a woman’s right to choose.” 

In recent years, Family Watch International has opened new offices in Kenya and Ethiopia, Shaw added, and its Ethiopia-based Africa director, Dr. Seyoum Antonios, routinely “speaks out against abortion on his YouTube channel” and calls on government officials to scrap reproductive rights. “The Ethiopian government liberalized its abortion law in 2005, a move which has saved countless lives, so it is very concerning to see US-linked groups trying to roll back this progress,” Shaw said. 

Not Just Africa

The US’ global anti-abortion lobby hasn’t just targeted Africa. In a 108-page report published in 2021, the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF) detailed money the US Christian Right has pumped into countries across Europe to bankroll what it called an “anti-gender mobilization.” Titled “Tip of the Iceberg,” the dossier examined the period between 2009 and 2018 and also noted significant financial input from groups in Russia and Europe. 

Decisions made in the US have an impact far beyond their borders.

– Sarah Shaw

The report found that 10 American organizations had spent some $83 million on “anti-gender” activities in Europe. Those organizations, according to the report, were nonprofits or conservative think tanks and had links to the Republican Party as well as far-right groups in the US. 

Neil Datta, the EPF’s executive director and author of the report, said in an interview that “overturning Roe v. Wade gave anti-gender organizations a boost in terms of enthusiasm.” Datta added that the groups “organized at least two events in the European Parliament to explore how the US experience could be brought to Europe.” 

“Already Started in Europe”

Datta warned that European courts were also a place to watch because they could become the focus of rights challenges. Datta pointed to the way Roe v. Wade was overturned in the US — at the tail end of a well-funded, decades-long legal effort and by influencing the makeup of the judicial system. “The overturning of Roe v. Wade was the best validation this strategy [and] its proponents could have hoped for, and we are likely to see more attempts to influence the courts in coming years,” he said. “And this has already started in Europe.”

The report identifies groups including the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ), which routinely publishes reports and blog posts that target reproductive rights. The ECLJ is linked to the American Center for Law and Justice, whose chief counsel is Jay Sekulow, a former member of Donald Trump’s legal team. The “Tip of the Iceberg” report also points to ADF International — an offshoot of the Alliance Defending Freedom — as an important actor in Europe. (The SPLC has also designated the Alliance Defending Freedom as a hate group.)

“Both ADF International and the ECLJ specialize in legal advocacy and thus fill a specific niche in the European anti-gender landscape,” according to the report, by engaging in Sexual and Reproductive Rights lawfare (SRR). This strategy “builds on the US Christian Right’s experience of attempting to provoke a desired change through the courts or other quasi-adjudicatory mechanisms.”

United Kingdom Not Immune 

Although the United Kingdom has some of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe, it has not been immune to the long reach of US money and influence, either. ADF International has opened offices in London, and according to the UK-based Good Law Project, the group has footed the legal fees of people who breach the buffer zones of abortion clinics. Such buffer zones are designed to protect patients from anti-abortion protesters. 

In 2023, the Good Law Project said that the group’s spending in the UK had surged to £770,000 ($985,138)  in 2022, questioning where some of the “dark money” had come from and noting its lobbying expansion in the UK. 

ADF UK did not respond to a request for comment. But in November, the group responded to criticism in a statement to EuroNews: “There is nothing ‘dark’ about our money, but that does not mean we can or will publish the names of our more than 750,000 individual supporters — in clear contravention of data privacy law.”

Louise McCudden of MSI Reproductive Choices in the UK said the repeal of Roe v. Wade had ushered in a wind of change. “In the UK, this has manifested as an increasingly large and hostile presence outside our abortion clinics,” McCudden explained. “We have no problem with people expressing personal views about abortion. What we do have a problem with [are] groups that harass vulnerable women and frontline healthcare workers while they are trying to access medical care or do their job.” 

“Louder, Bolder, and More Aggressive”

Although most people in the UK support reproductive rights, McCudden added, a “vocal minority” has become “louder, bolder, and more aggressive.” The problem worsens during 40 Days for Life, a twice-a-year US-based campaign that includes public advocacy like vigils and prayers outside facilities that provide abortions. McCudden said, “They target clinics around the world with an explicit goal of intimidating people while they make choices about their own bodies and their own lives.”

But according to “Tip of the Iceberg” author Neil Datta, it is not all bad news. While the end of Roe v. Wade has invigorated many on the anti-choice side, it has also motivated efforts to strengthen reproductive rights in Europe. The decision’s repeal “equally sent chills down the spines of most mainstream European politicians who looked for ways to better anchor abortions rights — resulting in improvements in over a dozen countries,” he said.

Katy Fallon

Katy Fallon is a Greece-based journalist writing about borders. She was the co-winner of 2023 Daphne Caruana Galizia Prize for journalism and is regularly published in The Guardian and Al Jazeera English.

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