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Family Watch International Mangles Families and Rights

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A Scandinavian colleague recently asked me to explain Family Watch International (FWI) and what kind of American ethos and ethics it represents. The name of this organization, she said, surfaced often at a recent United Nations meeting on HIV/AIDS. FWI had, she was told, invited representatives of small nations (who often feel neglected in international gatherings where the voices of larger nations carry further) to discuss their common commitment to families. On this basis, FWI "briefed" them on the evils of U.N. "human rights talk" and "hidden agendas" behind various proposed actions. In my colleague's eyes, the results were devastating. The lobbying poisoned debates, cast advocates of women's and gay rights as villains, generated tensions, and, worst of all, deflected the constructive path toward action on HIV/AIDS and common, urgent work to address a terrible pandemic that kills millions and leaves behind millions of orphans.

Trying to learn about the ethos of FWI is not easy, but they have a website, a newsletter and a Facebook presence (on Facebook 565 "likes" versus 216,000 for Rick Warren, 3.5 million for Egyptian Amr Khaled and 5,600 for Jim Wallis). Founded in 1999, they describe themselves as "a critical and exciting worldwide movement to preserve and promote the family, traditional marriage, life, parental rights and religious freedom." What seems to make them distinct is their focus on the United Nations and international issues more generally (they say they work in more than 80 countries).

FWI, the website observes, "is not affiliated with any religious group or political party and is a tax-exempt, tax-deductible charity under Section 501 (c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code." Sharon Slater is the President. They support work with orphans and some "humanitarian" projects.

One stated FWI goal is to demonstrate "how the UN system is being manipulated to influence national laws that promote abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, promiscuity and the sexualization of children."

And that goal leads to what my Scandinavian colleague had reported -- specifically, a "first annual 'Global Family Policy Forum'" held in January 2011 in Phoenix, Ariz. That event included "26 UN staffers from 23 different countries for a two-day conference on how to resist UN initiatives on sexuality." It was co-hosted with the Foundation for African Cultural Heritage, a group that is linked with the WCF (World Congress of Families). For two days there were "expert presentations on family issues, briefing sessions and discussions on how to better protect and promote the family and family values at the UN." My colleague heard that homestays with "genuine" American families were part of the experience.

FWI's newsletter observes: "For many of these diplomats, this was their first exposure to the scientific and clinical evidence that proves homosexuality is not genetically determined and fixed like skin color or race and that in many cases, individuals who experience same-sex attraction can be helped by therapy. This knowledge alone will pay huge dividends as UN delegates confront the anti-family, homosexual activists who are in the forefront of the international 'sexual rights' campaign that is one of the biggest threats to the institution of the family worldwide."

Beyond FWI's targeted efforts to rally support for their (negative) agenda at the United Nations, FWI is working actively to oppose gay rights in various African countries, with Sharon Slater, for example, speaking on the topic of families and homosexuality at a meeting of the Nigerian Bar Association. They seem to be fearless in lending support to those upholding harsh laws against homosexuality and abortion, for example, despite some awareness that their stance bolsters tendencies, like Uganda's vicious anti-gay bill, to harsh punishment, discrimination and violence. In one interview, Slater admitted that "it's complicated" and says that FWI does NOT support violence against gays. Psychologist Warren Throckmorton, who interviewed her, observes: "Despite Slater saying the matter was 'complicated,' the activities of FWI reveal a very uncomplicated, black-and-white strategy: laws opposing homosexuality in any form should be retained, while those which might provide basic freedoms to gays are opposed as bad for everybody else. The only caveat is that they prefer that gays not be beaten or killed."

FWI is clearly working actively (and cleverly) on an agenda that traces inextricable links between abortion, homosexuality, women's rights and the breakdown of families, and that seeks, in black-and-white terms, to torpedo efforts toward clearer international and national laws and norms that move in the direction of greater respect for diversity and for women's rights.

Which brings me back to my troubled Scandinavian colleague. At one level FWI can be quite readily explained as a fixture of the "culture wars" and the right wing or conservative agenda that is part of contemporary American politics. It is not the picture of the open, values driven, compassionate America that I, at least, believe in and try to project. But we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of conscience and accepting strong and often discordant voices is part of what liberty and democracy are about.

What is much harder to explain is the ethics and the linking of issues that the FWI lobbying represents. We know so much more about HIV and AIDS today than even a decade ago, and we know that stigma and ignorance are vicious enemies. Courageous religious leaders from many traditions are joining people living with AIDS and other advocates in working together to conquer this insidious disease, to accept that a complex of measures is what makes a difference. Openness, caring and compassion are absolutely vital ingredients. How could a group that purports to speak for families and family values undermine such efforts? How could they show so little compassion for those who suffer discrimination, who have little to no opportunity and support?

My work calls me to build bridges and work to understand differing perspectives, to respect people even where we disagree, to find pathways toward common ground even where we agree to differ. But as a mother, sister and daughter I am deeply offended by the hijacking of families for causes with which I profoundly disagree. Families are common ground for Americans and while we may see differently how families work, we all know (surely) that families are about love, however complicated that may be. As Americans trek through stations, highways and airports to spend time with their families over Thanksgiving, surely we can see the power of that love, right across the political spectrum. It is time to reclaim the family mantle from the mangle of culture wars.

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