The Global Assault on Choice

By Bethan Cobley, Director of Policy and Partnerships, MSI Reproductive Choices   

Fifty years after Roe v. Wade, the anti-choice movement is better organized, better funded and more pernicious than at any point in history. Many factors contribute to the strengthening opposition. One is the increased amplification of their narratives through social media and fake news. Another is the merging of the anti-abortion agenda with other anti-LGBTQI+ and anti-gender equality movements, aimed at rolling back women’s rights. Finally, President Trump’s move to expand the global gag rule in 2017 has emboldened the opposition. 

Fambaye, a woman in an MSI t-shirt and backwards baseball cap, stands in an remote village in Senegal. The anti-choice movement creates barriers to bringing choice to these communities.
Fambaye, an outreach coordinator for MSI Senegal, brings choice to women even in communities where opposition is strong.

Their sophisticated tactics reach audiences of all ages, economic status and religious affiliation. One tactic is well-produced online films and petitions. Another is the mobilization of young people as advocates. The opposition also uses demonstrations and rallies to gather support. Perhaps most alarming and ironic, they have co-opted spaces traditionally used to advance human rights such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization.  

The Pro-Life Activist’s Encyclopedia trains followers in debate tactics and instructs them on the right language to persuade others to join them.  Starting with the ingenuous moniker “pro-life,” the opposition uses vocabulary that refers to pro-choice as the “anti-life” movement. They declare supporters of choice “anti-family.” Stories built on concepts of “the natural family” and “natural sovereignty” also undermine pro-choice values.  

Who is driving the anti-choice movement? 

Groups such as the World Congress of Families, C-Fam, Citizen Go and Culture of Life use sophisticated data mining techniques. These tactics help them find their most-likely to convince audiences. They know exactly what message will resonate. They have expansive connections and networks, charismatic female leaders and are collaborating and sharing intelligence and tactics of what works. 

Their influence is global. Citizen Go, for example, is a Spanish based entity directed by all American and European boards. It mobilizes in East Africa to condemn a range of LGBTQI+ issues. Heartbeat International, based in the US funds a network of pregnancy crisis centers in Uganda. These actively target vulnerable young pregnant women seeking abortion with misleading promises of help. Once in the center, activists lie to these women about abortion and even blame sexually abused women for the abuse they experienced. 

Fambaye, a woman in an MSI t-shirt wearing a surgical masks, sits with a client dressed in a pink head scarf and matching dress.
Fambaye and a client at an MSI outreach site. Disruptive tactics by the opposition make it harder for women to access care.

Where does the money come from? 

Between 2009 and 2018, anti-gender equality groups raised least $702 million in funding. These funds originate from 54 organizations, and most estimates say the true number is much higher. The organizations are mostly non-governmental organizations, but include U.S political groups and oligarchs from the Russian Federation. Donations from wealthy individuals from the private sector and religious extremists tapping into public funding are two significant new trends. Open Democracy estimates that the right-wing Christian organizations in the US spend more than $280 million each year. 

What is the impact? 

The anti-choice movement targets organizations like MSI Reproductive Choices, one of the world’s largest providers of reproductive health services. 

Harassment and intimidation of our providers and clients is common. Online attacks that shut down our Facebook or WhatsApp pages, as experienced recently in Mexico, are on the rise. Mystery shoppers who pose as women seeking help, but are really anti-choice activists pester our clinics in Kenya weekly. These visits waste time and resources that could be used to serve women truly in need. Negative media coverage with hostile statements tries to force us into a defense position aimed at restricting services to our clients.  

The constant buzz and irritation of these tactics is one factor that makes providing choice more difficult. Together with the increased numbers of anti-choice individuals being appointed to key positions and all the restrictive policies and stigma that already existed, women’s access to reproductive healthcare is under threat. 

Despite the efforts of a vocal minority that wants to limit women’s rights, we see growing support for our services.  We see advocates removing unnecessary barriers and a new generation of young women inspired to protect reproductive choice.  These glimmers of light keep our teams traveling to places no one else will go to make choice possible. 

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