Last spring, Laurie Shestack Phipps, a diplomat at the US mission to the UN, received a set of talking points from the state department before an international women’s conference, setting out clear red lines against mention of “sexual and reproductive health” care. This had become the norm in the Trump administration, where the once uncontroversial phrase was seen as code for abortion. Use of the word “gender” was also strongly discouraged, as it was viewed as a stalking horse for LGBT rights.
It was no surprise that Phipps’ colleague, Bethany Kozma, a political appointee at the US agency for international development, had the same text. What was shocking was that she heard exactly the same words coming from the Yemeni spokesman for the Arab Group. Most striking of all – the shared script was already familiar. It had been circulated before the conference by an anti-abortion lobbying group called the Center for Family and Human Rights, or C-Fam.
C-Fam has emerged from the extreme right fringe on abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity to become a powerful player behind the scenes at the UN. With a modest budget and a six-strong staff led by the president Austin Ruse, it has leveraged connections inside the Trump administration to enforce a rigid orthodoxy on social issues, and helped build a new US coalition with mostly autocratic regimes that share a similar outlook.
And that coalition has already significantly shifted the terms of the UN debate on women’s and LGBT rights.
“When we got into negotiations, my instructions from Washington were verbatim taken from C-Fam, and Kozma had the same talking points,” said Phipps, now an adjunct professor of global issues at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “Then the Arab group spoke … and they read their statement and it was exactly the same. I turned to Bethany and said: ‘How did they get your talking points?’ I was winding her up. She looked pretty chagrined. We both knew they were from C-Fam.”
C-Fam’s channel into the state department and into the US mission to the UN under the then ambassador Nikki Haley, had made itself increasingly apparent in the run up to the 2018 Commission on the Status of Women at the UN’s New York headquarters.