Dark Money USA Photography Alexander Coggin Abortion

Activists "March for Family" during the World Congress of Families (WCF) conference. Photography by Alexander Coggin

A deep dive into dark money”

An undercover report investigating the secret financial backers using their wealth to internationally diminish our equality and human rights.

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).

Anti-homosexuality activists march through the streets of Ugandan capital, Kampala in support of the government's stance against homosexuality, 2014.
Photography by Issac Kasamani via Getty

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.

Dark Money USA Photography Alexander Coggin Abortion

Protest during World Congress of Families (WCF) conference in Verona. Photography by: Alexander Coggin

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”. 

Protesters hold signs reading "Wanted for racism" with pictures of Donald Trump, Santiago Abascal and Marine Le Pen during a demonstration against Spanish far-right party Vox in Barcelona, 2019. Photography by Pau Barrena via Getty

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. 

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