I’m sitting inside one of Milan’s biggest public hospitals waiting for help. I might be pregnant, and I’m not sure what to do.
I’m welcomed into a bare room. “Abortion is a tragedy that lasts a woman’s life,” says a counsellor, sitting behind a desk. But I’m told that if I carry the pregnancy to term, I’ll get help: money, housing, nappies, and more.
That same day, in a different Milanese neighbourhood, I head to another centre that claims to help pregnant women. There, the receptionist informs me about something called “post-abortion syndrome”.
“Nobody talks about it,” she says, “but some women still suffer guilty feelings and other symptoms 20 years after the procedure.”
We’re undercover journalists working at the global news website openDemocracy. And while the pregnancy isn’t real, the centres – and the “dark money” from America that partially funds them – very much is.
Across the United States, so-called “Crisis Pregnancy Centres” (CPCs) have become infamous for misleading women about their rights and healthcare options. Staff are trained to dissuade women from accessing legal abortions, and even contraception. And now, it turns out, American cash has supported similar projects across the Atlantic too.
The centres we visited in Milan are part of the ultra-conservative federation Movimento Per la Vita (MPV or Movement for Life). They’re a little different from American CPCs, styling themselves as counselling services for women facing “difficult or unexpected pregnancies”, rather than full-service medical clinics. But their goals are the same.
Founded in 1980, two years after Italy legalised abortion, the MPV federation has received tens of thousands of dollars from an outfit based in Columbus, Ohio, known as Heartbeat International. Formed in 1971 under the name Alternatives to Abortion, Heartbeat is seen as a pioneer of the controversial CPC model in the US. And the “post-abortion syndrome” we heard about in Milan is part of a growing battery of tactics used by professional anti-abortion activists globally (others include the eronious claim that abortions cause cancer, or that they’re dangerous, and even deadly, procedures).
Since early 2017, we’ve been tracking the growing network of these so-called “family values” movements globally. We’ve gone undercover at the World Congress of Families – an annual global summit of religious activists and their far-right political allies – in Hungary, Moldova and Italy. We’ve listened to them discuss sophisticated fundraising and legal tactics, tracked their funding across the world, and analysed their communications. And we’ve observed their training workshops on how to influence laws, policies, public opinion – and even pop culture.
On stage at the Budapest summit in 2017, a former Fox News producer thundered that TV was “at the centre of a spiritual war.” He told us that The Brady Bunch (which featured stepparents and stepchildren) was the start of a moral downfall that has led to abominations such as hit sitcom Modern Family (featuring a same-sex couple who adopt). A raft of 1990s television stars have also added faded glamour to this movement. Kevin Sorbo (Hercules) and Dean Cain (Superman) are just two of the small-screen superheros that take centre-stage in conservative Christian media today.
Our investigations have shown how incredibly well-connected and organised these movements are, with dozens of established organisations, networks, registered non-profits, legal armies, and ultra-rich backers (including Russian oligarchs, European aristocrats and Villa Sandi, one of Italy’s leading Prosecco makers).
Together, the movements we’ve tracked want to reshape the world so that it fits with their “traditional” worldview. That means no more safe access to abortion and contraception. For many, it also means no divorce, same-sex marriage or equal rights for LGBTQ+ people.
This global backlash against the rights and freedoms many of us take for granted is nothing new. In fact, it’s even something that Netflix have recently explored via The Family, a show inspired by Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power that sees a conservative Christian group known as “the Family” gain great influence in Washington, D.C., in pursuit of its global agenda.
For decades, powerful American Christian conservative groups have backed homophobic campaigns in Africa, including the 2009 “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda (which proposed the death penalty for homosexuality, but was ultimately unsuccessful). They’ve also backed draconian anti-abortion laws across Latin America, including in El Salvador, where women who have miscarriages can be suspected of illegal abortions and jailed on murder charges.
Now this “family values” brigade, emboldened by the Trump administration and its war on rights and equality in America, is ramping up its culture wars in Europe. A dozen US Christian conservative groups – including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the American Center for Law and Justice (which lists Jay Sekulow, one of Donald Trump’s personal attorneys as its chief counsel) – have spent at least $50 million pushing their agendas in the continent in the past decade. According to our analysis, several of these groups have significantly increased their European spending in recent years. None of the groups we looked at disclose the names of their own funders. And these sums are likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
Many of these groups, including Heartbeat International, are connected to the World Congress of Families network that brings together American along with Russian and other ultra-conservative activists. We also found and analysed every programme from this network’s international summits since 2004 – compiling a list of more than 700 people listed as speakers, from more than 50 countries. Who’s on this list? One of the most striking findings: dozens of European politicians – including mayors, governors, MPs, ministers, ambassadors and heads of state. Almost half of them came from far-right parties in five countries – Hungary, Italy, Poland, Serbia and Spain – and attended these events in the last few years alone.
So it’s no coincidence that many European politicians are singing from their hymn sheet when it comes to defending “Christian Europe”. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán put the message in his ruling party Fidesz’s European election manifesto in May. Italy’s powerful Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, has mocked feminists as “interesting for anthropologists to study” and promised to “fight the theory of gender until it changes.” Poland’s Law and Justice party is pushing to outlaw abortion and place restrictive limits on access to contraception. And Vox, which in April became the first far-right party to win seats in Spanish parliament since Franco, vowed to roll back laws against gender-based violence. One Vox official even attacked a female judge who has a record of being tough on rapists as a “whore” who played “dirty tricks”.
Some of these politicians present themselves as the “protectors” or even “champions” of women. Orbán, for example, has abolished income taxes for women who have four or more children, and offered incentives to encourage breeding for “traditional families”. In France, the far-right leader of the National Rally party, Marine Le Pen, has promised more funds for stay-at-home mothers, and sees herself as a protector of women against the “menace” of foreign men. Salvini’s Lega party supports the chemical castration of rapists. Ahead of May’s European Parliament elections, many of these same politicians pledged to confront the “migration crisis” by boosting their “own” (white) populations.
While these movements failed to win a majority in the European Parliament, they did make historic gains, particularly in countries such as Italy where more progressive parties have faded into the political background. When the first polls came out, Salvini celebrated winning 34% of Italian votes by holding up a rosary and kissing a small crucifix. This is the same guy who, five years ago, posed half-naked for a series of “sexy” photos, auctioned on eBay for charity. And can you guess who the beneficiaries included? The very same pregnancy crisis centre we visited in Milan, where we heard all about “post-abortion syndrome”.
Today’s religious culture warriors aren’t just focusing on politics to get their message across. They’re also lobbying hard against things like the proposed “Equality Act” in the US, which would extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ people. But they’re also targeting Pope Francis (who’s deemed “too liberal” on issues such climate change), framing him as a radical heretic, and spreading inflammatory fake news about how the Vatican is captured by “homosexual networks”. They’re even going after Disney. “Children and teens aren’t ready!” screamed one petition in March, protesting against the possibility that Marvel would to cast an “openly homosexual” actor in the role of an LGBTQ+ superhero.
Their campaigns are increasingly slick. Last year one US group began targeting LGBTQ+ teenagers online with “dehumanising” video ads on Facebook and Youtube (messages include: “It’s not gay or straight, it’s lost or saved”). The most-viewed video from this group, which said it uses “media and evangelism to reach the lost”, was called Love is Love and featured a young woman supposedly sharing her experience of “redemption” from same-sex attraction. This investigation showed how easy it is to target people like this online – which can also be very cheap to do. If you know what you’re doing, it can cost less than £10 to get 1,000 views on a Facebook ad.
And it isn’t just cash flowing across the Atlantic: it’s expertise too. Several of the American religious groups describe themselves as “think tanks”. One of these, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, has worked with another Rome-based “institute” (called the Dignitatis Humanae Institute) where Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s controversial former adviser, is a patron. This institute made headlines this year amid plans (since thwarted) to set up a “gladiator school” in a monastery outside Rome to train the next generation of European culture warriors.
Yet against the flow of conservatism, more and more women, LGBTQ+ people and allies are mobilising. In late March, Italy’s Matteo Salvini spoke at the latest World Congress of Families in Verona, 30,000 people joined together to fight for rights and equality in a protests outside. Women travelled to Verona, not only from all over Italy, but also from Poland, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, Belarus and Argentina. Marinella Matejčić, one of several Croatian activists we met, talked of the rising far right as “the most dangerous threat to modern democracies. “We must open our eyes and act before we find ourselves living in a fascist Europe,” she said.
Her point was underlined shortly after the protest, when the Italian Movement for Life Federation outlined its strategy online. It explained that removing the country’s 1978 abortion law remains its “unavoidable goal”, but admitted that it remains politically difficult. That’s why, they said, their culture warriors must also launch attacks through “culture, education, advice”.
They had begun preparing for an anti-abortion summer school in northern Italy, with the American group Heartbeat International – supported with money from Italy’s Ministry of Labour. So what was on the agenda? How to build relationships with local authorities, learn from allies across borders, use social media to win battles, and how to talk about post-abortion trauma, just as we heard in Milan. This is not a new war, and it’s one that’s far from over.