50.50: Investigation

How openDemocracy is tracking anti-abortion misinformation around the world

Nine months ago, we began following the money of two US religious right groups. Then, we deployed our own global network – of feminist investigative journalists. 

Claire Provost author pic 20190502_155624.jpg
Claire Provost Nandini Archer
12 February 2020
Still from video testimony of undercover reporter.
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openDemocracy.

US religious right activists with links to Trump’s White House have supported the spread of what are called ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ around the world, openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash project revealed this week. 

There are thousands of these centres in the US where some have been previously criticised for presenting themselves as neutral health facilities while hiding their anti-abortion and religious agendas from women who are looking for help. But the global scale of these activities has not been mapped until now. 

Over nine months, our team followed the global networks and spending of the Christian conservative group Heartbeat International, a pioneer of these centres in the US, and worked with undercover reporters in 18 countries to conduct the largest global investigation into their overseas activities. (Read more: Exclusive: Trump-linked religious ‘extremists’ target women with disinformation worldwide).

The results have prompted calls for action around the world. In South Africa and Mexico, officials have already promised inquiries and potential sanctions. (Read: Revealed: US-linked anti-abortion centres ‘violating the law’ in South Africa).

To produce this investigation, we analysed 10 years of Heartbeat’s US financial filings. This showed how they have spent almost a million dollars around the world since 2007 – and gave us names of more than a dozen specific grantees.

One reporter enrolled in two of Heartbeat’s online ‘academy’ courses, to see what it teaches people in its network. We then mapped all of Heartbeat’s ‘affiliates’ outside of the US. In Latin America, we found, its key partner is a regional network that is also backed by a second US anti-abortion group, Human Life International.

We were surprised to find that crisis pregnancy centres linked to these US organisations had spread all over the world but there had never been a global investigation into their activities. In Argentina, parliamentarian Mónica Macha suggested that these centers have been “acting in the shadows”. 

Last year, we first sent undercover reporters to some of these centres in five countries, visiting them in person in Italy, Mexico and Spain and calling their hotlines in Croatia and Ukraine. Across countries, several reporters were told strikingly similar false or misleading claims about abortion’s health impacts.

Heartbeat claims to have a network of these centres on “every inhabited continent”. So we went global too – working with reporters to replicate these visits and hotline calls in another 13 countries (Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, South Korea, Israel, Serbia, Romania, Ireland, Canada as well as in the US). In Zambia, a reporter also interviewed the leaders of a network of these centres.

Over the next week and beyond, we’ll publish more reports from this investigation. None of this would have been possible without our growing international network of reporters collaborating on the Tracking the Backlash project. Key contributors are listed below (though not in all cases, for security reasons).

Since 2017, openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash project has followed the dark money, international networks, strategies and impacts of ultra-conservative and far-right groups aiming to block or roll-back women’s and LGBTIQ rights globally. 

Led by women and LGBTIQ journalists, collaborating across borders, this project has previously revealed how US Christian right groups have spent millions of dollars in Europe over the last decade, and how one Spanish ultra-conservative group worked to drive voters to the far-right ahead of the 2019 European elections. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive all the updates about our new stories.

Contributing reporters: Claudia Torrisi (Italy), Sian Norris (UK), Ana Brakus (Croatia), Rocio Ros Rebollo (Spain), Isabella Cota (Mexico), Tetiana Kozak (Ukraine), Stephania Corpi (Costa Rica), Agostina Mileo (Argentina), Neha Wadekar (US), Ángela Meléndez (Ecuador), Masutane Modjadji (South Africa), Christi Nortier (South Africa), Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu (Uganda), Banjo Damilola (Nigeria), Ruxandra Maian (Romania), and Naomi Niddam (Israel).

openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash team: Claire Provost (Editor), Nandini Archer (Assistant Editor), Carolina de Assis (Production Editor), Kerry Cullinan (Health Editor), Lydia Namubiru (Africa Editor), Francesca Visser (Investigative Reporter), and Diana Cariboni (Latin America Commissioning Editor).

Take action

Across 18 countries, our undercover reporters posing as pregnant women uncovered a global network of ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ that target vulnerable women and girls with ‘disinformation, emotional manipulation, and outright deceit.’

Government agencies have promised investigations and lawmakers across four continents have called for action.

But what we’ve found is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sign-up to stay informed and find out how to take action in your country.

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