International Anti-Abortion Research Project: Preliminary Report

Date Published: July 18, 2006
Source: (Political Environments #2, Summer 1995)

The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development brought to light many international anti-abortion groups that had yet to be noticed. Through conferences such as the ICPD and the upcoming conference on the status of women in Beijing, international anti-abortion activity becomes more visible, increasing the need for women's organizations to monitor and combat it. The Vatican has promulgated anti-abortion views through religious organizations, but current times have brought a rise in international anti-abortion politics that extends beyond religious networks. As we prepare for the Beijing conference, international anti-abortion activity must be monitored and politically counteracted both in and outside of the conference proceedings.

Anti-abortion activists will no doubt target the Beijing conference. The anti-abortion movement has previously attacked population control for its coercive and pro-abortion methods, holding up the situation of women's rights in China as the prime example of pro-abortion terror. Randall Terry summarizes Chinese women's experience under population control as "the forced mutilation of their bodies and the murder of their children."1 The Beijing conference is an opportunity for anti-abortion groups to attack abortion and contraception by condemning the violation of women's rights in population control policies. Under these circumstances anti-abortion groups "defend" women's rights while framing feminists and women's health advocates as enemies to the "unborn" and women themselves.

Anti-abortion groups are not incorrect in their assessment of coercive population control measures, but they use their condemnation of population control to try to take away abortion and contraceptive rights from women. A strong feminist response that supports birth control, not population control, is vital. It is critical that anti-abortion voices not be the only ones speaking out against coercion in Beijing. A feminist silence on China's population policies will not support abortion and reproductive rights; it will only give unwarranted legitimacy to the anti-abortion perspective.

Anti-abortion activity on the international level has not been extensively researched and the information available is as of yet still limited. International anti-abortion activity is difficult to track because it operates through many different religious and political networks. Specific groups such as Human Life International and STOPP International are now receiving research attention, but the larger picture of how anti-abortion organizations work together at the international level is not entirely clear.

As of yet, it does not seem that international anti-abortion activity has a significant grassroots base. Rather than being a mass movement, international anti-abortion activity is performed by experienced anti-abortion leaders working within church networks and large international structures such as Human Life International and the International Right to Life Federation.

International anti-abortion activity takes the form of propaganda translation and distribution and networking through international anti-abortion affiliates. Examples of this include but are not limited to:

  • Hayes Publishing Company based in Cincinnati, Ohio offers anti-abortion information in English, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Lithuanian, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, Malayalam, Swedish, Cambodian and Ukrainian, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Norwegian, Hungarian, Turkish, and Greek.2

  • Human Life International, the largest and most visible international anti-abortion organization, has formed 53 offices in 39 countries since it began in 1981.3 Through conferences and speeches to Catholic high schools, universities and missionary workers, Human Life International distributes anti-abortion, anti-sex education, and anti-contraception information throughout the world.

  • Human Life International specifically fights population control and the United Nations through its Population Institute that actively worked against the 1994 Cairo conference.4

The international anti-abortion material available at this point does not indicate much cooperation between Catholic and Protestant groups on the one hand, and other religious denominations on the other, though at Cairo the Vatican struck an unholy alliance with Islamic fundamentalists. For groups such as Human Life International, abortion is just one of many targeted issues. Human Life International believes that abortion, contraception, sex education and gay and lesbian rights are problems that must be dealt with in the process that will "re-Christianize" the world.5 Because abortion is part of a larger global "Christian" agenda, Human Life International attacks Moslems for their lack of Christianity rather than working together for a united international anti-abortion platform. Friar Marx, the founder of Human Life International, states, "Moslems are taking over Western Europe," and "if you're not a friend of Allah, you're an enemy… they will kill you to please Allah."6

Human Life International's discrimination does not end with Moslems but continues with anti-Semitic rhetoric. Friar Marx compares current abortion rights to the holocaust, attributing a large degree of responsibility to the Jewish community. Friar Marx states, "a segment of the Jewish community… more or less led the greatest holocaust of all time, the war on unborn babies."7 This discrimination limits the scope of Human Life International's anti-abortion influence throughout the world. Without further cooperation between international anti-abortion activists and other religions, its impact will be limited to countries with a Catholic or Christian influence.

There is strong evidence of international and U.S. domestic anti-abortion collaboration. The Franciscan University of Steubenville, located in Steubenville, Ohio, has strong international connections alongside its domestic anti-abortion work. The Franciscan University of Steubenville is a Catholic university with 1,800 students from all 50 U.S. states and 40 foreign countries. The university prides itself on its "submission to the teaching authority of the Catholic church."8 Its anti-abortion views strictly follow those of the Vatican; it is the only college known to offer a minor in "Human Life Studies."9 The University has a long standing history of anti-abortion activity that includes the arrest of its president, Friar Michael Scanlan, and the Steubenville Bishop Ottenweller during a clinic blockage in July of 1989 and the 1990 arrest of a student later convicted for assaulting clinic workers.10 The University acts as a base for anti-abortion protesters in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania and also provides space for organizations such as the Word of God-Sword of the Spirit networks.11

The Franciscan University of Steubenville's international connections include:

  • In September of 1994, Human Life International presented a founding donation for the "Human Life International Chair" that provides a faculty position at the university for a professor to teach only "pro-life and pro-family issues." Human Life International training sessions accompany "life studies" classes through this position.12

  • The University's affiliation with the Word of God-Sword of the Spirit networks has an international scope. The Word of God-Sword of the Spirit organization has branches in Honduras, Ireland, Lebanon, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and South Africa.13

  • The University has international interests in other "life" fields as evident in the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force whose headquarters are located in the Franciscan University of Steubenville's Human Life Center.14

The U.S. anti-abortion movement exerts considerable influence on international anti-abortion activities. European pro-choice leaders note that Human Life International's work has exported tactics used by militant U.S. groups such as Operation Rescue to other countries.15 The work of Thierry Lefevre, an influential French anti-abortion activist, is one example of anti-abortion collaboration between nations and through Human Life International. Thierry Lefevre's organization "Truce of God" is an ally of Human Life International and Lefevre himself attends Human Life International conferences.16 Moreover, his anti-abortion campaigns have used "rescue" styled actions to work against the French distribution of RU-486 as well as its export to the U.S.17 In addition, Thierry Lefevre came to the U.S. in 1991 to aid Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups' attack on Witchita, Kansas.

The cooperation between activists from the U.S. and abroad strengthens the anti-abortion movement through a transfer of tactics and support. As anti-abortion activists share their resources, it is conceivable that their influence will increase, placing abortion, contraception, sex education and gay and lesbian rights in increasing jeopardy as international anti-abortion forces organize together to form a "Christian" world.

Since the 1980s international anti-abortion activity has moved out of the realm of Catholic church work to an organized network where anti-abortion activists around the world collaborate to increase their efficacy. The rapid growth and charismatic success of international anti-abortion leaders have brought anti-abortion activity out of individual countries to a more united platform that could negatively affect women's reproductive freedom on national and international levels.

The impact of international anti-abortion groups cannot be underestimated. Clearly, more research and monitoring are needed. The International Anti-Abortion Research Project requests submissions of information regarding international anti-abortion activity from women's groups, NGOs, and prochoice activists in different countries. All information will be added to ongoing research for a future publication that will discuss the activities and tactics of international anti-abortion groups. Please send information regarding international anti-abortion activity in your location to:

International Anti-Abortion Research Project
Population and Development Program/SS
Hampshire College
Amherst, Massachusetts 01002