Show Me the Evidence

Andrea Lynch

Population Research Institute's latest piece of propaganda can't understand the difference between forced abortion and legal abortion.

The latest video from the Population Research Institute (PRI)-which describes their new "Latin America Initiative"-is so unfettered by evidence, and so full of hypocrisy, that it almost refutes itself. If PRI didn't have such an alarming record of influence with the Bush administration, I would ignore the video completely. But they do, so here we go.

PRI is the Virginia-based anti-abortion, anti-family planning group whose advocacy led to the freezing (for five years running) of the traditional U.S. contribution to UNFPA, and whose president is fond of suggesting that U.S. family planning and sexuality education programs are responsible for "Islamic terrorism" (among other claims). Most recently, the journal Reproductive Health Matters published an article detailing PRI's elaborate attempts to block Peruvian women's access to emergency contraception (EC) through (false) claims that a group of U.S.-funded organizations were violating the Global Gag Rule by providing women with information about EC. There's a pattern here. PRI's modus operandi is essentially to level baseless accusations, unsupported by evidence, at organizations that do not share its political views. They do this by engaging in creative conflation and paraphrase in two directions: they twist and tweak their ideological opponents' activities on one end, and they twist and tweak U.S. laws and policies on the other end, until the two sides of the equation match up. Then, voila! Before you know it, your organization is using taxpayer dollars to force women to have abortions. PRI makes a quick call to one of their rabid anti-abortion allies in Congress, the legislator complains, and before you know it, you're in danger of losing your funding.

Here's how PRI's latest video screed unfolds: Latin Americans are pro-life (meaning "anti-abortion"), and most Latin American countries are democratic. Therefore, the fact that abortion is illegal in most Latin American countries is proof that "Latin Americans don't want abortion" (an excellent use of categorical syllogism, if I do say so myself. Never mind that Nicaragua's recent therapeutic abortion ban was one of the most undemocratic legislative processes I have ever witnessed – unless, that is, you consider giving bishops carte blanche to write public health laws a sterling example of civil society participation). Meanwhile, a coalition of "radical feminists, New York-based foundations, radical population controllers, and some radical environmentalists," funded by U.S. taxpayers, are attempting to establish laws across Latin America that favor "abortion on demand" and "massive sterilization and contraception campaigns." This subversion of democracy not only violates U.S. laws, the video insists, but has also led to widespread anti-U.S. sentiment across the Latin American region (and you thought it had something to do with economic and military policy, silly viewer – think again!). In order to protect Latin Americans from this vicious reproductive imperialism, PRI works with anti-abortion Latin Americans to expose and de-fund U.S.-based organizations attempting to (illegally) foist their "abortion mentality" on unsuspecting Latin Americans.

I could spend the rest of the day unpacking this cornucopia of assumptions, misrepresentations, and oversimplifications, but most of what I'd say is already here. Instead, I'll focus on the process of conflation that PRI employs to ram its points home, because it is the same process used by many anti-abortion, anti-family planning, anti-feminist organizations who seek to impose their own ideology on the rest of the world through accusing other organizations of (wait for it) imposing their own ideology on the rest of the world. In the video, PRI makes some pretty serious accusations:

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  • They claim that "Americans" (meaning U.S. citizens, I presume) are "forcing" abortion on Latin Americans (advocating for the liberalization of restrictive abortion laws, in partnership with local groups advocating the same, in a region where over 4 million women seek unsafe, illegal abortions every year, is now considered "forcing abortion").
  • They claim that "in places like Colombia and Peru, we're subverting, we're undermining democracy, by trying to impose an abortion mentality on a country that is naturally and consistently pro-life" (for the record, Colombia's abortion law was liberalized in response to a case brought by a Colombian citizen).
  • They claim that "American family planning organizations often try to meet quotas and offer incentives in order to get the results they want…this is coercion, and it is illegal" (no examples provided).


If you're waiting for the evidence, don't hold your breath, because there isn't any. As the statements cited above either scroll over a sinister black screen or spring from the mouth of PRI's own Steve Mosher, the only concrete examples we see of alleged U.S. attempts to subvert democracy by illegally forcing coercive abortion and sterilization on unsuspecting pro-life Latin Americans (using taxpayer dollars) are two fuzzy images of billboards, presumably located in Latin America (though there is no information about where or when the images were taken). The first reads (translation mine), "For a better future, plan your family. Go to your nearest health center: we'll be waiting!" The billboard appears to be sponsored by the Ministry of Health (it doesn't say in which country), since that's the only logo on it. The second billboard reads: "Planning our families, we live happily," and there are three fuzzy logos at its base-one from CARE, one that could be the same Ministry of Health logo we saw on the first billboard, and one that is unidentifiable.

So, PRI claims that U.S. organizations are subjecting Latin Americans to forced abortions, and the evidence is that two posters advocating family planning that may or may not have been co-financed by U.S.-based international organizations exist in Latin America. Thus, PRI has not only conflated "forced abortion" and "legal abortion" (by claiming that liberalizing restrictive abortion laws is the same as forcing women to have abortions), they've now also conflated "forced abortion" and "the existence of family planning services."

But that's still only half of the conflation equation. Here's the other half: the description of the laws that PRI accuses U.S.-based organizations (still not named) of breaking. Specifically, PRI's video cites the Kemp-Kasten amendment and the Tiahrt amendment. Here's how it describes these two pieces of legislation (emphasis mine): "The Tiahrt amendment and Kemp-Kasten amendment both state that coercive abortion-related activities may not be financed by U.S. tax dollars." And here's what Kemp-Kasten actually says:

No foreign assistance funds can be made available to any organization or program which, as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.

The Tiahrt amendment is a little longer, so I won't reproduce it here, but in essence, it seeks to ensure that family planning programs are non-coercive and do not discriminate against women who do not wish to use contraception, and that women can make informed decisions about family planning.

So, according to PRI, any kind of family planning is now an "abortion-related activity." Any mention of family planning is just veiled coercion. And therefore, anyone who provides information about family planning in Latin America is now participating in a program of forced abortion or coercive sterilization. Joking aside, this video is beyond sloppy, irresponsible policy analysis. It's also a testament to PRI's willingness to ignore distinctions that might not matter to PRI, but that are incredibly important to the vast Latin American population whose true beliefs PRI purports to represent. For a video that is supposedly dedicated to promoting cultural sensitivity, that's a pretty insulting conflation. Did you hear that, Latin American women currently taking birth control pills? You're engaging in an abortion-related activity, probably against your will, whether you think you are or not. But don't worry, if you're confused about your rights, just call PRI. They'll be more than happy to clear things up for you.

Topics and Tags:

Family Planning, Latin America

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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