In October 2020, government representatives from more than 30 countries, including the US, Brazil, Poland and Egypt, signed the so-called ‘Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women's Health and Strengthening the Family’. The non-legally binding document states that “there is no international right to abortion” and promotes the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society”. It has been harshly criticised as the latest example of international pushback against women’s rights.
The rise of a newly powerful political Right in the US, Brazil and Poland, which favours traditional, conservative Christian moral values, including the defence of a heterocentric family model and the questioning of reproductive and sexual rights, has opened up the possibility of new links between conservative, right-wing and political Islamist forces in Muslim countries. The similarity in the way that certain Christian and Islamic forces employ religion – to construct an ideal that claims to defend human life and the family – is the basis for an alliance that sets itself apart from hegemonic concepts of human rights as formulated and defended in the multilateral forums of the UN and the WHO.
This new alignment in foreign policy exposes the increased international influence of political-religious factions, revealing unexpected alliances between Catholic, evangelical and Islamic moralisms in the area of reproductive justice. These have one main goal: to diminish women’s autonomy and agency to decide what they want for their own bodies.
Brazil: evangelical moralism
In recent years, Brazil has seen a strong expansion of conservative and especially neo-pentecostal forces in party politics. The composition of Congress favours the advancement of agendas against reproductive justice: nearly 40% of Brazil’s parliamentarians identify as members of the Evangelical Front (Frente Parlamentar Evangélica). The group contains politicians from various parties – many of them originally pastors, bishops or gospel singers – who position themselves against gender equality, abortion, homosexuality and more.
Once recognised worldwide as a defender of the universalism of human rights, Brazil has made the fight against ‘gender ideology’ a flagship project
With the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, neo-pentecostal politicians came to occupy important positions in government, including evangelical pastor Damares Alves as Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights. Recently, Alves provoked an outcry when she interfered personally in the case of a ten-year-old girl who sought a legal abortion after being raped by her uncle, mobilising various state institutions to try to prevent the medical procedure. Eventually, the girl had to be transferred to another state to carry out the legal abortion.
In foreign policy, Bolsonaro’s election has provoked a 180-degree turn in the country’s position. Once recognised worldwide as a defender of the universalism of human rights, Brazil has made the fight against ‘gender ideology’ a flagship project, thereby strengthening its ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq.
Poland: Catholic religious fundamentalism
Poland is another important player in the international pushback against reproductive justice. In 2019-20, the re-election of ultra-conservative Andrzej Duda as president and the parliamentary majority won by the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) solidified the right's hold over Poland’s main political organs.
The close and long-established relationship between the government and the Polish Catholic Church has become increasingly evident in recent years. Alongside PiS, the legal lobby group Ordo Iuris and ‘anti-abortion activist’ Kaja Godek, head of the Life and Family Foundation, represent the two main anti-choice actors.
Those radical right-wing Christian organisations focus on issues such as divorce, contraception, access to abortion, and sexual orientation. Ordo Iuris experts hold (or previously held) positions in government, including the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
These groups are also part of a global network of fundamentalist Christian organisations that involves the secretive movement of huge sums of money between key countries, including Brazil, France, Poland and the US. In particular, Ordo Iuris has close ties with the Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) movement in Brazil.
Abortion access is a key target for these groups and one of the main civil-society issues in Poland. At the centre of these controversies is abortion on the grounds of foetal deformity – so-called ‘eugenic abortion’ – which currently accounts for 98% of all legal abortions performed in Poland. In October 2020, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal deemed this exemption to be unconstitutional, and in January 2021 this judgment became law, thereby placing a de facto ban on abortion in the country.
Egypt: state regulation and public morals
As for Egypt, the influence of conservative and religious perspectives on sexual and reproductive matters has increased in the post-colonial era. Since 1923, Egyptian constitutions have contained articles that establish the heterosexual family as the “basic unit of society”.
Successive regimes, including those of Nasser (1954-70), Sadat (1970-81) and Mubarak (1981-2011), maintained this conception, while Islamic Sharia law is the source of legislation for marital and private matters, leaving no space for non-heterosexual trajectories. Accordingly, the body has become a responsibility of the state and not of individuals. This has been reflected in the criminalization of any social and sexual relationships not conforming to the heterosexual family frame.
Current president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, a former general and director of military intelligence, led a military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Sisi’s regime presents itself as a “virtuous” replacement of the Brotherhood, attempting to please the country’s conservative majority. This includes the curtailment of reproductive justice.
Egypt sought to strengthen its relations with Trump's US by becoming an active partner in the global pushback against reproductive justice
Abortion is a crime in Egypt. The only exception is if the pregnancy threatens the life of the pregnant woman. This has made abortion inaccessible and unsafe, forcing women with unwanted pregnancies to risk their lives in unsanitary conditions, where they may be subjugated to sexual and financial exploitation by doctors and pharmacists.
Egypt relies on development funds from overseas. It sought to strengthen its relations with the US (under Donald Trump) by becoming an active partner in the global pushback against reproductive justice. Sisi’s regime has also strengthened its ties with conservative allies such as Brazil through the promotion of foreign trade, tourism and financial investment.
Geneva Consensus Declaration
The Geneva Consensus Declaration signed on 22 October 2020 by 34 countries –led by the US, Brazil and Egypt, and including Poland – is the strongest expression of an ultra-conservative move against reproductive justice in decades.
The claim that the traditional family is under permanent attack, that voluntary termination of pregnancy should not be considered part of family planning, and that the right to abortion does not exist, shows the clear challenges these right-wing governments pose for the guidelines on reproductive justice produced by international entities.
The arrival of President Biden’s new government, and the resulting departure of the US from the Geneva Consensus in January 2021, dealt a hard blow to this "unholy alliance". Nevertheless, the continuity in power of the rulers of Brazil, Poland and Egypt, their continued political backing at home and their large networks of ideological and financial support, render its chances of timely collapse rather small.
We, feminist activists from across the world, stand up against this global attack on reproductive justice, defending our bodily autonomy and our right to choose. And as the far right moves ever closer together, we also urgently need to stand together and strengthen our ties. It is more than time.
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