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"Family Rights" Frame Disguises Right Wing Propaganda

Posted Jul 11 2008 5:00am
Last month's United Nations High Level Meeting on AIDS drew government officials and members of civil society from around the world to UN headquarters. During the meeting, individuals came together and caucused around particular issue areas, including the seemingly-innocuous concept of "family rights," at the Family Rights Caucus. But "family rights" is often a blind used to usher in a host of right wing biases.

This caucus was convened by the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), Family Watch International (FWI), National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). Lynn Allred, Communications Director for Family Watch International, framed the purpose of the discussion in her opening statements: to uphold religious freedom and parental rights and to defend the beliefs that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman and that "the family is the foundational unit of society." After Allred's introduction, we knew what was in store: good old-fashioned right wing propaganda. But the Right has learned a thing or two in recent years that has greatly influenced their advocacy approach. Old-fashioned propaganda comes with a very new spin.

First, the Right has learned the importance of tailoring messages to a specific audience. Sensationalized defamation and name-calling may play well when preaching to supporters, but doing so in a setting such as the High Level Meeting undermines their legitimacy. Using human rights language and creating arguments which can stand up to some logical inquiry, however, is less likely to alienate those who find sensational rhetoric offensive or unreasonable. When Sharon Slater, President of Family Watch International asked, "Is stigmatizing high risk behavior the same as stigmatizing an individual with HIV?" this was not an innocent question, but a careful calculation on how to undermine sexual rights while seeming to appear fair-minded.

Later in the discussion, Slater told the audience that she has a very good friend who smokes and that she frequently talks to this friend about how she can get help. She stressed that in these conversations, she addressed the behavior not the individual. This is classic homosexual conversion rhetoric, which came as no surprise given the presence of Arthur A. Goldberg, Board member of NARTH, Co-Director of JONAH, and President of Positive Alternatives to Homosexuality (PATH). He argued that many people experience unwanted same-sex attraction for which treatment is available, stressing that the focus is on the rooting out the behavior and not attacking the person. I was unconvinced. He followed this statement with a discussion of a scientific study conducted by homosexual researchers (he made sure we took note of this fact) that demonstrated that no homosexual relationship is 100% monogamous. Goldberg argued that the conclusion to take away from this study was that all homosexual relationships were promiscuous and high risk. He emphasized the fact that these researchers were homosexuals who conducted this study of their own people so they had no ulterior motive. He concluded that "we're not promoting religious values -- we're staying in the secular, scientific and evidence based." Can those of us advocating for sexual and reproductive health and rights can count that as a win -- that the "evidence-based" argument has been so successful that it has been co-opted by the right? It's a bittersweet victory.

Another key lesson learned by right-wing advocates is to have a seat at the table, or at least close to the table. The mandates of organizations like C-FAM and Family Watch International include participating in proceedings and meetings at the international level. C-FAM’s mission is “[t]o defend life and family at international institutions and to publicize the debate,” carried out through their vision, which is “[t]he preservation of international law by discrediting socially radical policies at the United Nations and other international institutions.”

Austin Ruse, President and Founder of C-FAM had this to say at the 1999 World Congress of Families meeting in Geneva:

We have arrived at a perilous moment in the life of the family. Long under attack by her enemies, the family seems now to be disintegrating all around us. In every country of the developed world, families are breaking up under a plethora of pernicious pathologies. The roots of the attack, and their result are easily enumerated by most of the current social science data. But I will focus on one institution with which I am most familiar, the United Nations, an institution that is increasingly at the forefront of the attack on the family.

Piero A. Tozzi, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of C-FAM, stated in the caucus meeting that organizations like C-FAM are present to support countries who believe that families play an important role in society. They do so by convening small, closed meetings with country delegates as well as calling open meetings such as the Family Rights Caucus which can draw anyone present. In the June 25 edition of the Family Watch International newsletter, Slater reported that "caucus meeting allowed [them] to identify new allies in several countries, including an official UN delegate representing Kenya, who pleaded with [them] to come to Kenya as soon as possible to launch an African movement for the family." Their successes come not only in influencing language and content of negotiated documents, but in the relationships forged to further spread their messages. The organizations represented in this caucus meeting are increasingly committed to their mission of engaging in international advocacy. It will serve us well to continue to keep watch on where they go and how they get there.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of organizations—both in the United States and around the globe—that exist to limit individuals' access to sexual and reproductive health information, education, and services. SIECUS believes that it is vital for advocates of sexual health and reproductive rights (SRHR) to stay up-to-date on the goals, thoughts, and activities of these organizations. To help advocates around the world, we monitor right-wing organizations and news sources and compile a digest of their articles on topics such as abortion, family planning, sexuality education, and sexual orientation each month. If you are interested in subscribing to our International Right Wing Watch please fill out this form.

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