On March 29-31, opponents of sexual and reproductive health and rights kicked off their own recognition of the Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family by convening in Mexico City, Mexico. The Third World Congress of Families was organized by the non-governmental organization Family Network of Mexico, the US-based Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, and the World Family Policy Center at Brigham Young University. Twenty additional organizations served as sponsors.
The First World Congress of Families was held in Prague in 1997, it was followed two years later by a similar conference in Geneva. This year's conference was organized by a planning committee that included representatives from Australia, Canada, Cameroon, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, the United States, and Venezuela. The organizers report that more than 3,300 people from over 75 countries attended the conference to hear from more than one hundred speakers.
The three-day meeting focused on "issues like homosexual 'marriage,' abortion, population control, anti-family media (news and entertainment), parental rights and the UN's anti-family agenda."1 According to the organizers, the goal of the event was to "forge an international pro-family alliance transcending national borders, cultures and faith traditions."2
Allan Carlson, Ph.D., president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, gave an opening address at the Conference, "first, we are here to acknowledge - in the words of the Geneva Declaration - 'that the natural human family is established by the Creator' and 'inscribed in human nature.'" He went on to say, "second, we are here to affirm the marriage of man to woman as the first and necessary social bond, the foundation of Civil Society."3 Mr. Carlson described marriage by saying, "each marriage represents the renewal of a community through the promise of responsible new citizens to come…[since] children reared within natural marriage will be healthier, brighter, harder working, and more honest, dutiful, and cooperative than those raised in other ways."4
Marta Sahagun Fox, wife of Mexico's conservative president Vincente Fox helped to open the conference. Fox told the delegates that, "no matter what country we come from today we have a common vision, the value of the family."5 Mrs. Fox has been a stalwart supporter of abstinence-only messages and has even created her own philanthropic enterprise to promote her favorite causes.
Other speakers included Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, who discussed his view that divorce is never acceptable, even in domestic violence situations. Continuing the theme, Marcus Witt, a U.S. Christian leader, said that what is needed is to reinforce the "manliness" of husbands.
Richard Wilkins, a law professor at Brigham Young University and the Managing Director of the World Family Policy Center, described the Mexico City meeting as "the largest gathering of citizens, academicians, government leaders and religious leaders ever to convene in support of the natural family."6
The policies and ideologies of the Bush Administration played a key role in the conference. Wade Horn, the Assistant Secretary for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spoke about the United States' new Healthy Marriage Initiative, which since 2001 has been one of the top priorities of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).7 Between Fiscal Year 2002-2004, ACF committed nearly $300 million from several funding streams to support marriage-related activities.8 The proposed FY 2005 budget allots an additional $240 million for "marriage promotion" and "family formation" activities.9
Ambassador Ellen Sauerbrey, U.S. Representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women also spoke. Sauerbrey decried the U.N.'s "misguided course" and accused it of "continued discouragement of childbearing, disparagement of religion, intrusion upon parental authority, and emphasis upon the autonomous child."
Sauerbrey also read a letter from President Bush that praised the efforts of the World Congress in recognizing "the importance of families in our society" and praised those assembled, saying "your work improves many lives and makes the world better." Highlighting his own efforts in this area, he wrote, "To ensure that America's future generations are prepared to face new opportunities and challenges, my Administration has taken important steps to promote strong families, preserve the sanctity of marriage, and protect the well-being of children. My Administration also encourages adoption and supports crisis pregnancy programs, parental notification laws, and other measures to help us continue to build a culture of life."10 Sauerbrey also read a letter of support from several of members of the United States Congress, including Representatives JoAnn Davis (R-VA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ), who are ardent opponents of reproductive health and rights.
A number of Far Right organizations from the United States, including the Population Research Institute (PRI), Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the Beverly LaHaye Institute located at Concerned Women for America, were in attendance and supported the event.
Many people, however, criticized the conference and its messages. "These people have gone too far," said Jose Maria Covarrubias, the leader of the Mexican organization Circulo Gay, "their positions ignore history and the signed international treaties that support sexual diversity and the commitments to respect it."11
Mario Arteago, the president of the Mexico Pride Committee, criticized the World Congress of Families saying, "that structure of dad, mom, son, daughter, dog and cat no longer reflects the reality of the bulk of the population."12
Democracia y Sexualidad (Demysex), a colleague organization of SIECUS in Mexico, worked with other NGO's in that country to draw attention to the diversity of family structures. They created a widely distributed brochure entitled "Families Are" and held several press conferences to present a broader vision than that of the World Congress. Their efforts generated nearly 400 press mentions that challenged the Congress' messages.
Advocates of sexual and reproductive health and rights argue that Mexico was carefully chosen to empower conservative forces in the region. "Organizers have a game plan here," said Bill Smith, SIECUS' director of public policy. "They believe that traditionally Catholic countries in the region may be more supportive of the U.S. and Vatican positions on many issues at the U.N. related to reproductive health and women's issues if only these forces were better organized and able to gain a greater voice within their own countries."
Perhaps the most significant piece to emerge from the Congress is what organizers have termed "The Mexico City Declaration." Consisting of eleven "Basic Principles," the Declaration includes provisions stating, "the natural family is the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered on the union of a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage." It also states that "sexuality exists for the expression of love between husband and wife and for the procreation of children in the covenant of marriage." In addition, the drafters characterize a "good government" as one which "protects and supports the family and does not usurp the vital roles it plays in society."13
The Third World Congress kicks off a year-long schedule of "unofficial" global activities to recognize the United Nation's Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family including a number of regional conferences. For example, European conferences are scheduled for both Sweden and Belgium. The calendar culminates with the International Conference for the Family in Doha, Qatar from November 29-30, 2004. While these are not official U.N. events, organizers are increasingly using language and promotional literature that suggests an association with U.N. activities. SIECUS will continue to monitor and report on these events as they occur.
Need for Increased Advocacy Efforts
"Between the Mexico City Policy [the Global Gag Rule] and the Mexico City Declaration, the opponents of sexual and reproductive health and rights have created two pillars of salt that the international community will not let stand," commented Bill Smith. "The grassroots efforts of Mexican activists are an additional testament to the growing consensus that enough is enough," continued Smith. It is imperative that advocates worldwide must pay close attention to the activities of these opponents.
- "First Lady of Mexico and President Bush Welcome Delegates to The World Congress of Families III," Howard Center, Press Release, March 30, 2004. Available online.
- "Why Are We Here? Opening Address," Allan Carlson, PhD., World Congress of Families III. Available online.
- "Massive Conference in Mexico City Advances Pro-Family Cause," Friday Fax Email Newsletter, C-FAM, April 9, 2004.
- J. Burke, "Congress of Families Lures Nearly 3,500," Deseret Morning News (UT), March 31, 2004.
- T. Ooms, S. Bouchet, M. Parke, Beyond Marriage Licenses: Efforts in States to Strengthen Marriage and Two-Parent Families (Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, April 2004).
- Bush Administration Proposed Budget for Fiscal Year 2005, Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Federal Funds, pg. 451.
- Letter from President Bush to World Congress III, March 26, 2004. Available online.
- D. Cevallos, "Population: 'Natural Family' Definition Rankles Rights Activists," IPS-Inter Press Service, April 1, 2004.
- "Mexico 2004: Mexico City Declaration: Basic Principles," World Congress of Families III website, accessed online on May 12, 2004.