IRWW Special Edition
World Congress of Families V – Amsterdam
August 10-12, 2009
The clarion call to gather for the fifth World Congress of Families (WCF V) in Amsterdam this summer went out to conservative, “pro-family” and “pro-life” supporters and advocates around the globe. The WCF was convened by the Howard Center for Religion, Society and Family and co-sponsored by a veritable Who’s Who of right-wing organizations. The WCF V, titled “Family: More Than the Sum of its Parts,” was held August 10-12, 2009 with the intent of promoting the advancement of a “pro-family,” “pro-child, “and pro-life” movement. The event featured three days of panels, presentations, movie screenings, etc. culminating in the “Amsterdam Declaration,” a statement seeking to put forth the principles and aspirations of the WCF.
The WCF was overseen by a management committee, which included such well-known opponents to sexual and reproductive health and rights as Allan Carlson (President , Howard Center), Janice Crouse (Senior Fellow, Beverly LaHaye Institute, Concerned Women for America), Paul Mero (President, Sutherland Institute), William Saunders (Senior Fellow & Human Rights Counsel, Family Research Council) and Christine Vollmer (President, Latin American Alliance for Families).
Tracking the WCF has been a central element of SIECUS’ opposition monitoring and reporting because the various groups’ goals and strategies for opposing sexual and reproductive health and rights are on full display. SIECUS has been following the WCF for a number of years, working directly with local NGOs where WCFs are held to monitor and report on developments of note, and taking an inside look at the strategy and planning of the right’s most prominent, global leaders. For the WCF V in Amsterdam, SIECUS joined forces with Netherlands based colleagues, CHOICE for youth and sexuality, and World Population Foundation (WPF) and United States-based Ipas to minimize the impact and effectiveness of the event. This report highlights some of the key themes of this year’s meeting, which included promotion of the natural family as the fundamental principle of the entire movement, the “crisis” of demographic decline, and embracing a “pro-family” agenda in developing nations, as well as provides analysis on the impact and context of the this fifth congress.
The positions of the WCF organizers and supporters are well known and fairly consistent year after year. The last WCF in 2004 was held in Poland, which was specifically chosen because the conference organizers felt that, despite pressure to change since joining the European Union, Poland had maintained “strong faith and family values.” Poland was repeatedly praised throughout the WCF for its strong anti-choice and discriminatory anti-LGBT policies—two policies which have recently led the European Court of Human Rights and European Parliament to issue decisions against Poland. Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski submitted a statement in support of the WCF IV, indicating that promoting the natural family is a matter of national survival. The Bush Administration’s U.S. Assistant Secretary of State at the time, Ellen Sauerbrey also brought official U.S. support to the right wing gathering as she presented at the conference and discussed the natural family as the “seedbed of the state.” Prior to that, WCF III was convened in Mexico City and served as the foundation for emboldening the efforts of the conservative organization Red Familia, resulting in harm to sexual and reproductive health and rights in Mexico and in other countries in the region.
A noteworthy distinction between WCF V and previous WCF meetings was the attempt to mainstream the pro-family movement by integrating presenters who did not fully embrace or promote the same ideals as the WCF organizers. It seems that the local organizing committee had a strong hand in building in this approach, seeking a kind of dialogue on the issues. However, the few who sought this approach could not generate adequate buy in, and there was not sufficient facilitation among people with disparate worldviews and opinions. Despite the intentions of the organizers promoting this approach, it can be said that it was mostly unsuccessful. For example, the disparity between the relative breadth and inclusivity outlined in the first draft of the Amsterdam Declaration, which is the outcome document of the WCF issued at the conclusion of the each WCF, and the resulting final draft, was striking. More on this striking extremist evolution is below.
This brings us to the question of “Why Amsterdam?” Head of the Local Organizing Committee, Simon Pollinder, noted the current political environment was more favorable with growing interest in the government for issues related to the family, as evidenced by the recent creation of the post of Minister for Youth and Families. However the June/July edition of the WCF newsletter claimed that the Netherlands was the bastion of liberal secularism, implying it’s a kind of challenge to take on in terms of mobilizing a strong political base. Noted for its progressive social policies, such as wide-ranging childcare coverage and school-based comprehensive sexuality education, the Netherlands presented a challenging environment in which to present their conservative platform.
The co-sponsoring organizations for the WCF V, which were predominantly US-based right-wing organizations, included Alliance Defense Fund, Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, Human Life International, REAL Women of Canada, Red Familia (Mexico), and Swiss Parents Forum.
Who came to Amsterdam? Well aside from the usual cast of characters- almost nobody. The organizers anticipated around 4,000 participants, and in the end it was closer to 400. The economic circumstances aside, the organizers consistent portrayal of Amsterdam as the virtual devil’s den likely scared away the closed minds typically in attendance the WCF events.
Andre Rouvoet, the Dutch Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Youth and Family, was invited to speak at the WCF V, sparking significant controversy because the WCF promotes a discriminatory and exclusive view of the family which goes against the Dutch standards of inclusive pluralism. Representatives from the Democrats (D66) party urged Rouvoet to explain Dutch laws and policies on legal abortion, same-sex marriage and diverse forms of families to the meeting’s attendees. In the end, a rich debate was carried out in the public discourse regarding the appropriateness of such a discriminatory set of principles and whether members of the Dutch government should participate.
Natural Family: Foundation of the World Congress of Families
The concept of the “natural family” is at the core of the WCF mission. Allan Carlson, founder of the WCF and President of the Howard Center for Religion, Society and Family, along with Paul Mero, President of the Sutherland Institute, outlined the concept in their treatise The Natural Family: A Manifesto. It states that the natural family is the foundation of society; it is formed through the marriage of one man and one woman with procreation as the central purpose of the union. The two argued that having both a mother and father ought to be considered the right of every child, and should not be “subject to adult preference” such as a same-sex couple choosing to have children. They also lambasted the notion of a heterosexual couple “choosing” not to have children. In all these instances, argued Carlson and Mero, what is evidenced is the selfish expression of adults putting their needs and wants above that of a child’s and violating the purpose at the heart of family formation itself.
Fundamental to the natural family is the notion of selfless giving, among which a woman’s fertility is a “gift” which she gives to her husband, family, and, ultimately, the larger society. The first World War was cited as a turning point in the viability of the natural family, when “the new feminists turned away from motherhood and children and refocused on a legalistic and sterile equality.” However, in a break from the rote rhetoric, Professor Rekha Pande from the University of Hyderabad (India) argued for the need to reverse current structures of male power and privilege in families and the proscription of weakness and subservience for women and girls. Despite this momentary breath of fresh air, the standard proscriptions for a societal order based on gender prevailed, predicated on the notion that equality violates the distinctive and absolute complementarity of men and women. Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America warned that we are “on the cusp of losing marriage in one generation” as a result of the destruction of God’s intended and fixed gender roles.
And, as might be expected, speaker after speaker spent considerable time attacking homosexuality as the ruination of civilization. Homosexuality is viewed as a direct threat to traditional marriage and the natural family, ruling out any possibility of a laissez faire coexistence in which healthy and successful family and partnerships assume a wide range of configurations. Tired and offensive arguments about the psychological and developmental harm resulting from failed mother-child relationships and attachment were frequently set forth. According to several speakers, this failed relationship results in an individual’s poor self-concept of being acceptable, causing him or her to act out and express selfish desires. It is therefore intrinsically disordered, going against the natural order of the male and female pairing, and, instead of serving the greater society through procreation, which is a selfless giving, homosexuality is about personal gratification.
Anna Zaborska, Member of the European Parliament (EP) and head of the Women Rights and Equality Commission, warned that “marriage has become optional and disposable” and urged that young women and men shouldn’t fear motherhood or fatherhood. Her solution is to incorporate “family mainstreaming” into the political realm of the public sphere in the same way that gender mainstreaming has become the norm. This example demonstrates the practice of co-opting strategies from more progressive movements. She set the goal of reducing divorce and cohabitation (a frequently cited evil which destroys any possibility of a happy, faithful marriage) and increasing child bearing by 2020. Zaborksa urges policy changes to protect each life from conception to natural death, define the natural family as a state political priority, and develop long-term family and marriage support policies. Such a call to arms is at the heart of the WCF- energize and mobilize the conservative pro-family base to take action and push for legislative changes which transform this ideology into law.
Zaborska represented these right wing extremists’ attempts to put the political powers into the service of their own mission. Engagement with the state was portrayed as a necessary evil, as an underlying tension and distrust of government exists, and several WCF V speakers warned of the state’s encroachment on family sovereignty. Frequent scenarios depicted the family as the most important social unit, accountable to no one, especially not the state. For example, Pat Fagan, Senior Fellow and Director the Center for Family, and Religion at the Family Research Council, expressed criticism of non-maternal childcare as an “ideologically motivated statist project to control all childcare” and therefore undermine the family by the state using childcare as a means of inculcating its own values. It is all a bit overwhelmingly Orwellian, but this wariness translated into a consistent distrust of government generally and, more specifically, of international human rights law. On the latter point, Michael Farris, Chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, characterized international human rights law, and similar types of universal accords, as attempts to value the “power of governments more than the rights of the people.” In other words, all such attempts that place power or authority outside of the natural family structure are ultimately attempts to undermine it.
Yet, while such distrust was frequently expressed at the WCF, the need to usher these same principles to the service of promoting the natural family is equally evident, representing a type of public policy schizophrenia that never quite finds firm footing among the WCF and its adherents. Many speakers spoke of the validity of certain concepts that are central to the human rights law. For example, Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was invoked throughout the WCF for its purported support of the concept of the “natural family.” However, then speakers like Theresa Okafor, CEO of the Life League in Nigeria, criticized international human rights mechanisms as “systematic discrimination against the natural family and pro-life values.”
Warning!: Impending Demographic Crisis
Another central theme addressed in WCF V is the idea that “demographics is [sic] destiny,” and that humanity is being threatened by a “Demographic Winter,” as Steve Smoot said in the introduction to the session “Family and Demography.” Steve Mosher of Population Research Institute (PRI), warned that “sub-replacement fertility,” or reproduction rates below current population levels, will lead to devastating consequences and that currently 59 nations, or 44% of the population, are living below replacement birthrates. The consequences that Mosher and others portend range from inability to care for aging generations to the claim of the end of civilization.
Adding to the hyperbole, Senator Francisco Tatad of the Philippines, blames the so-called “culture of death” promoted by international organizations for population decline and creating poorer and weaker families. At the second WCF in Geneva, he remarked that: “The West must be made to see that, from its own folly, only the still active population of the third world, not the aging and dying population of the first, can promise deliverance… And it will not be won unless the families of the world take it up, and unless they do so, in their own name and in God’s name, above all.... Europe, therefore, must be rechristianized. Only then will we finally cast out the devil and see the return of strong and vibrant families into our homes.” The culture of death can only be undone when Christianity reigns, displacing all other influences once again allowing the family to grow in peace.
In his presentation, Philip Longman, a Senior Fellow with the Center of the New American Progress, posited that families of faith who have 3-4 children or more are assuming the burden of care for those who are childless, balancing out the sub-replacement fertility of others. He argued that therefore religious fundamentalism (and the subsequent larger families) brings “demographic ascendancy” while secularism ensures “demographic decline.” According to Longman, as we move away from a primarily agrarian society, “family has become an after hours consumption unit,” and families are dysfunctional because the concept of family no longer possesses an economic basis. Longman expressed a kind of romantic nostalgia for the “way things were,”urging a return to the nuclear family in order to satisfy not just a necessity of civilization, but also individual needs. According to him, religious fundamentalism with the greater number of children is the ticket to achieving this end. What is clear is that the pattern of lower fertility rates was is viewed by the WCF and its adherents as a profound sign of moral and social decay.
WCF Attempts to Incorporate the Worldview of “Developing” Countries
The WCF V also attempted to bring the “developing” world into its dialogue, and, in preliminary reports issued by the WCF V organizers summarizing the presentations and events, claimed that there are “a lot of natural allies for the natural family in Asia, Africa and Latin America.” While this may have been an attempt at inclusivity, the flawed framework and antiquated sense of the world order at the heart of WCF’s vision ultimately resulted in a backfire. Rather, what seemed to emerge was a kind of fear mongering about the destructive influence of the “West” on families in developing countries.
Moise Napon, General Secretary of the Christian Relief and Development Organization in Burkina Faso, warned that, in African nations, the “growing individualism is damaging solidarity which is the core of the family” and individuals no longer seem dependent on their family members. And, Theresa Okafor argued for the dynamic relationship of the pro-family movement with those in developing nations because it allows them to participate in a dialogue, assuring that these ideas about the family are not imposed from outside. She criticized the money that was being sent from international organizations and donors to “reduce the population” in order to bring economic growth, but the examples such as India, which has experienced economic growth, but not reduced the size of its population, are taken as encouragement against “population control.” Allen Carlson, of the United States-based Howard Center reinforced the message that family and population are not the obstacle to development. This framing distorts family planning and reproductive health services into an imposition from external forces that seek to curtail the number of “undesirables,” instead of framing family planning as a means of individual choice in deciding childbearing-related issues.
A “Pro-family” Approach to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic
As can be imagined, discussions regarding the HIV epidemic brought an onslaught of hypermoralized responses to curtailing the spread of the epidemic. Moira Chimombo, Executive Director of SAFE in Malawi, advocated for what she called the “family approach to HIV prevention” based on a different ABC formula than is promoted in what she termed a “secular context,” A-Abstinence, B-Be faithful, C-Correct and consistent condom use. Chimombo described the ABC approach as: A-abstinence and virginity; B- be faithful, and; C- Christ-like character. Chimombo’s reworking of the C is fairly obvious and again underscores the rhetoric of missionary work at the heart of WCF. But her reformulation of the “A” is also noteworthy in that it is not simply the behavior of not engaging in sexual activity that characterizes this approach, which is an action but preserving virginity which Chimombo calls a “state” and entails a “virginity of action and virginity of mind.” Chimombo’s argument is problematic for a number of reasons. First obscure moral judgments and platitudes regarding virginity can interrupt the delivery of effective HIV prevention measures, and can implicitly place blame on the individual who acquires HIV, contributing to stigma and discrimination. Promoting virginity also promotes the idea that one’s value is somehow lessened once becoming sexually active, especially if done so outside of marriage. Second, leaving out lessons about correct condom use and success and failure rates, may soothe a sense of personal righteousness, but can leave those most in need of protection vulnerable to HIV infection. Providing the full range of information and building the capacity to make sound decisions does not automatically lead to moral degradation, but promoting a moral ideal at the expense of one’s health, surely does.
On the more evidence-based and public health interventions to combat HIV, there was derision. Theresa Okafor called the promotion of condoms as a means of protection against HIV transmission “hype” instead of “teaching social responsibility and behavior change” in the form of abstinence. Allen Carlson called for the implementation of “character curriculum” in schools in place of sexuality education, which he asserted is all about promoting condoms and the culture of contraceptives. All in all, the WCF’s solution to combating HIV/AIDS seemed to be a combination of ignorance, more religion, and a jettisoning of evidence-based programs.
Tactical Approach: Attempts at Justifying Ideology through Social Science Research
However, the organizers also continued their time-tested and disingenuous pattern of using social science when they needed it. In Amsterdam, this tactic was out in full force. Pat Fagan, in one instance, claimed science showed that children living with two natural or biological parents in a married couple are happiest and that any variation results in a negative outcome. Fagan claimed that CAT scans of the brain and neurological research demonstrated that being in non-maternal care (care with someone other than the biological mother) for as little as 10 hours a week, resulted in negative outcomes. These outcomes included, but were not limited to, hostile or anti-social tendencies, behavioral problems, and “noncompliance.” He asserted that this would then impact an individual’s capacity to marry, as well as the capacity for self-control. He argues that this was not about individual choice, but that non-maternal care had real consequences for public policy as it impacted the greater society. What seemed to be the underlying story, however, was a tired, recycled old fable attributing a child’s failings to an incompetent or uncaring mother who dared to work outside of the home. These rants do not take into account the real, lived experiences of individuals and families and do not promote sustainable and family friendly policies and practices, but rather seek to police how families are configured and, in doing so, conform to an antiquated model with a male breadwinner, and submissive mother/wife anchored in the home.
Amsterdam Declaration: A Dynamic Statement of Intent or Broken Record?
At the end of each WCF gathering, a declaration embodying the principles and aspirations of those in attendance is issued. While the initial draft of the Amsterdam Declaration upheld certain conservative positions, such as that marriage is always between one man and one woman, it also seemed to promote a broader inclusivity – at least initially. The first draft called a family “a group of persons bonded by marriage and blood or adoption” and addressed that “vulnerable one parent, grandparent and child-headed families in particular should receive support , also in their communities.” While this may be flawed in assuming an inherent vulnerability, for example, in single parent households, it represents a broader cultural embrace, and is certainly more inclusive than the final narrow definition of the final draft.
The section on “improving the position of women and children” in the first draft outlined the dangers to the dignity and rights of women, including harmful cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation, domestic and sexual violence and denial of rights to land, property, inheritance and succession. This section presented recommendations as well which included “policies and legislation to eliminate discrimination against women, in particular with regards to marriage, reproduction, sexuality, family relations and education.” Another section recommended that “in the countries where overpopulation is a real problem, people need to be informed about how to prevent unwanted or untimely pregnancy.”
The scope and shape of the final draft of the declaration did not resemble the first draft, which seemed more thoughtful and slightly more inclusive. As to be expected, the final declaration asserts that the natural family is based on the “lifelong marriage of a man to a woman, ” calling for laws and policies that discourage divorce, encourage couples to rear children and “guard vulnerable human life, especially a the beginning and the end of the life cycle.” Other provisions include:
- discouraging abortion as a means to reverse declining birth rates and demographic decline.
- promoting abstinence, faithfulness and character-building to “break the cycle” of HIV infection.
- holding up the natural family as the solution to poverty.
While these may be narrow in their scope, they are relatively clear in their intent.
A bit trickier to unravel is the assertion that “the natural family exists prior to the state [and therefore] public policies must respect this family autonomy.” Many of the WCF leaders have a strong footing in academia and the on-going revitalization of the conservative philosophical tradition. It is here, in arguing for the primacy of the family unit, that we find strong resonance to the natural law tradition whose ability to find meaningfulness in the modern world is a broader, questionable enterprise. But in attaching that tradition to the policy statements advanced by the WCF, we find a vain attempt to seek validity beyond the persistent theocratic mantra that is an anathema to a contemporary appreciation of pluralism. But for the modern world and the challenges before it, does this mean that the family is not beholden to follow the laws of the state? Are we to follow the path that this very narrow definition of family is still the reason for the state’s existence? Equally unclear and potentially problematic is the provision that “religious organizations should be free to uphold their own moral teachings about marriage and family in the public state.” Clearly this is directed at the newly emerging legal standards regarding anti-hate crime and anti-hate speech laws, but how far is this intended to cover? Does this seek to lay out a new threshold between the autonomy of the family as a religious entity in the face of state authority? The evolution of this declaration indicates a bit of the schizophrenic identity embodied in this meeting, both seeking to mainstream the “pro-family” movement and uphold the traditional and conservative ideology indicative of past WCF gatherings.
Mainstreaming of Conservative Ideology at the World Congress of Families
WCF V was an attempt to bring their event mainstream, as a slightly more liberal or progressive edge emerged, although it remained in the background. The most notable of these slightly progressive influences was the presence of some speakers who may not share the delusional imaginings of the WCF lead organizers. Simon Pollinder, head of the local organizing committee indicated, at least in part, the motivation behind this move lay in the accusation that the WCF organizers and supporters were “afraid to debate.” He reported that the WCF invited speakers who do not fully embrace WCF principles, but that many of them didn’t accept the challenge, to which he responded “Who’s afraid now?” amid smug laughter from the crowd. One can only wonder how sincere this effort was, however, as enabling disparate views to be exchanged and share the same space requires an intentional cultivation which requires more than a simple invitation.
As the final day of the conference drew to a close, WCF again was confronted by the challenge posed by their attempts to mainstream their views when invited speakers disagreed with their fundamental premises. For example, at the concluding session, several Dutch Members of Parliament and one Australian Member of Parliament shared their thoughts on the WCF itself, the issues addressed in the Amsterdam Congress, and specifically the position statements outlined in the “Amsterdam Declaration.” While the response was respectful and some points allowed for agreement, several of the speakers expressed dissent and disagreement. Mirjam Sterk, a member of the Dutch Parliament from the Christian Democratic Party, expressed her and her party’s support for the family and ensuring the happiness and well being of its members. However, she also stated that they differ from the WCF supporters in their definition of the family in that marriage is not just a man and a woman and their children, but could be a same sex partnership that even included children.
Joel Voordewind, a member of the Dutch Parliament from the Christian Union party said that he disagreed with the statements regarding HIV, expressing approval for promoting abstinence, being faithful, and character building, but stated that he also believed that condoms could not be excluded, particularly for sero-discordant couples. On another topic, he expressed that women should not be relegated to the home, but be given access to an education and a profession. He boldly continued to state that not only should women be supported in their home and work balance to care for their children, but that men should also receive support so they can spend time with their children. These comments hit at the core WCF ideology of the inherent distinctions between men and women.
That WCF organizers permitted a space for dissenting opinions is noteworthy, although the end result didn’t quite achieve the goal of mainstreaming their own extreme views.
Can the World Congress of Families Reconcile its Ideals with Those of a Pluralist Society?
Ultimately the World Congress of Families is made up of individuals, and yes, families, that are part of a broader society. As neighbors, and fellow citizens, what they are talking about and doing matters because it impacts the shape of public life- what laws are created which affect such areas as education of children and legal definitions of marriage. A fairly consistent current throughout WCF V is the belief in a religious mandate for the family. From this follows the belief that creation of the family leads to an increased quality of life, a fulfillment of the responsibility as a man and woman, as well as making a contribution to well-being of the wider society and somehow justifies defending against perceived threats to the family, even if doing so undermines the rights of others.
The main problem with religious fundamentalism in a pluralist society is that believers are unable to reconcile differing or dissenting views to their own fundamentalist tenets. The belief other values systems somehow threaten their own spurs them to action. In his presentation, for example, Fagan advocated for a separate but equal system of education for what he called families of the “monogamy culture” (having only one sexual partner in a lifetime) and for the “polyamory culture” (having more than one sexual partner in a lifetime). This elaborate scheme of vouchers, and an artificially separated cultural reaches an absurd, and almost farcical peak.
Can differing concepts of family, marriage and sexuality really never be reconciled? While those of the WCF organizers that sought to introduce more moderate and relatively progressive viewpoints in the WCF were perhaps seeking to facilitate a genuine dialogue, the final outcome demonstrated that at least, this gathering was not ready to open the doors.
For more information on the opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights, see the International Right Wing Watch on the SIECUS website– www.siecus.org/irww.
For additional coverage on the World Congress of Families by SIECUS opposition researcher on RH Reality Check , see the following pieces:
ALERT! Radical Feminists, Homosexuals, and Abortionists are Taking Over
World Congress of Families Ratchets Up the Missionary Rhetoric
A Bankrupt Worldview and an Identity Crisis at the WCF
A Bankrupt Worldview and an Identity Crisis at the WCF
World Congress of Families Gathers in “Bastion of Anti-family Policies”
 “World Congress of Families Sees Poland as Pivotal,” Catholic World News, 11 May 2007, accessed 31 May 2007, <http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=51088>.
 World Congress of Families Newsletter, June/July 2009, Vol.3. No. 6, accessed 21 August 2009, <http://www.worldcongress.org/wcfnl/wcfnl.cur.pdf>