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The far-right networks trying to end abortion in Europe

Sian Norris explains how extremist ideas are laundered for the mainstream

Welcome to the Impact newsletter, where this week we bring you an interview with the author of a groundbreaking new book about abortion and the far-right around the world. Only have a minute to read? Here’s the newsletter in brief:

  • 🔍 Journalist Sian Norris investigates the far-right networks that oppose reproductive and LGBTQIA+ rights in Europe and the US.
  • ❗ She explains how political organisations take conspiracy theories about women’s bodies and make them palatable for the mainstream.
  • 📕 You can win a copy of Bodies Under Siege! Read on to find out how.

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In 2017, British journalist Sian Norris was in Romania reporting what she thought was a straightforward story about an upcoming referendum on marriage equality. But she stumbled on something much bigger.

“All of the activists kept talking about this situation where big, American ‘religious freedom’ organisations were getting involved in this referendum,” she says. It was puzzling to Norris, who wanted to know why US Christian fundamentalist groups were interested in the domestic concerns of this “small, modern, European country”.

As she looked into it more, she found the same organisations popping up again and again, and not just around issues of LGBTQIA+ rights. The networks were active in Ireland during the 2018 referendum on decriminalising abortion, and in Poland, where abortion rights were rolled back even further in 2021. In fact, all over Europe and in the US, “the far-right was weaponising abortion to further its conspiracy theories and to ultimately further its aims for a fascist ideology,” Norris says.

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In her new book, Bodies Under Siege: How the far-right attack on reproductive rights went global, Norris exposes the networks that promote extremist ideology and bring it into mainstream politics around the world. The roots can be traced to the US fundamentalist groups she first saw in Romania, but also to Russian oligarchs and European aristocrats who promote racist, far-right conspiracy theories that would condemn white women to a life of forced reproduction, subject women of colour to sterilisation and snuff out queer identities entirely.

The results have been devastating. Roe v Wade was overturned in the United States, stripping millions of their abortion rights. In Europe, the mainstreaming of nativist politics that opposes LGBTQIA+ and reproductive rights has seen the far-right ascend to positions of power in Italy, Germany, Finland and Spain. In Hungary, people are encouraged to ‘report’ same-sex families to the authorities and gender transition has been outlawed.

In an interview with the Impact newsletter, Norris explains how extremist, white supremacist ideology about abortion and LGBTQIA+ rights enters traditional politics in Europe and beyond, and how we might fight back.

Subscribers to the newsletter can win a copy of Bodies Under Siege by replying directly to this email. Good luck!

Megan Clement — In the book, you describe a pipeline whereby fascist, far-right ideas move from the extremist fringe all the way through to mainstream politics. Can you explain how that pipeline works?

Sian Norris — Extremist rhetoric about abortion rights, women’s role in society and women’s bodies is moving out of the dark corners of the internet and becoming almost laundered by seemingly respectable organisations with far-right or fascistic notions, and then being pumped out as government policy.

The replacement conspiracy theory is an idea that was born on the far-right and has been on the internet for a long time. It says that white people are being replaced, that there is a white genocide, and in order to defeat that, we need lots of white women to have white babies for the nation and the white race. It’s awful and horrible and extremely racist and misogynist, and if it was just ten people on the internet reading each other’s crappy manifestos, we could ignore it. But we’re increasingly seeing the notion of replacement being voiced by mainstream politicians. In Hungary, [Viktor] Orbán is ground zero in my mind for the mainstreaming of replacement theory. In Italy, we had Matteo Salvini … using the language of replacement and conspiracy theory to promote his anti-rights agenda.

In the middle of the pipeline we have organisations that launder the ideology. One of the key networks that I look at in the book is Agenda Europe, which has become more subordinate now. They take these ideas — about what women’s role should be, what women’s bodies are for, how women should be subordinate to male authority, how women shouldn’t really be in public life, how abortion should be banned, how LGBT rights should be rolled back — and put them in a presentable and acceptable framing. They don’t use the language of “white genocide” or the language that extremist incel groups use about women. But the ideology is there that women should be in domestic roles that are inferior to the patriarchal superior. They’re the ones that go to the UN and to PACE [the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe], take these ideas to national governments and make them seem acceptable and palatable.

It’s a dangerous pattern — the US has done it “successfully”, it sounds horrible using the term because their success is so terrible for women’s rights. We’ve seen these fascistic ideas about women’s bodies and women’s roles being presented by Christian nationalist organisations and so-called religious freedom foundations. Under Trump’s presidency, not only were the actual fascists brought into the mainstream but these ideas were being parroted by him and his government. As a result, that is where we are now, a year since Roe v Wade was overturned.

Megan Clement — What is the role of white supremacy in these movements?

Sian Norris — This white supremacist, new fascist movement is in favour of abortion, sterilisation and ultimately genocide for black and global majority women, and wants to ban abortion for white women. What we see in the more extremist spaces is this idea that “nationalist” women should have as many babies as possible for the white race. The nationalist influencer Ayla Stewart set the “white baby challenge”. She was like, “I’ve had six, can you beat me?” There’s a real push for a white woman’s role to be a fertile badass and to have lots of white babies for the master race. Abortion is [seen as] repressing the white birthrate, therefore it needs to be banned in order to recover from this so-called demographic crisis. The idea is that white women are repressing the birth rate with abortion and black and global majority women are having “too many” babies. They have a bigger, genocidal plan to create “pure” ethno-nationalist states. It’s really dark.

Photo by Jon Snedden

Megan Clement — You’ve spent some time in some really awful places for the researching of this book, and that really comes through.

Sian Norris — It is horrible and that’s why we need to take it seriously. Far-right extremists talk about women having abortions as being individualistic and selfish. In the UK, we recently saw a conservative MP talking about how individualism had failed to deliver babies. That set off so many alarm bells. I’m not saying this MP has spent time reading terrorist manifestos like I have, but this is the language of far-right, terrorist manifestos — that women’s individualism is destroying the white race. And I think we have to be really aware of this.

Megan Clement — In reporting on abortion rights in Europe and talking to people about it, I often note a complacency, it must be said usually among men, who have this idea that abortion rights aren’t perfect in Europe, but we’re not like the US. In Europe, we are basically progressive, you can basically get an abortion, we’re fine. But your reporting shows that there are very dedicated, very well-networked, very well-funded groups trying to reverse this situation. Given this, should we be worried about the rollback of abortion rights even in places where they’re modestly protected?

Sian Norris — From a UK perspective, I do often say that Britain is not the US. The strength of religious evangelicalism in Christian nationalism in the US is very different to most of Europe. In Europe, broadly things are kind of okay. But we’re still seeing things like crisis pregnancy centres becoming much more mainstream and influential in healthcare systems. [Editor’s note: ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ are organisations founded by anti-abortion groups that claim to offer advice about unwanted pregnancies but instead try to discourage people from getting abortions.] Italy is a really good example, where crisis pregnancy centres operate within hospitals, which is a really scary thing. If you get pregnant and you don’t want to be and you need an abortion and you know where to get an abortion, then you know what to do. The people who ended up in crisis pregnancy centres are the ones who are already vulnerable and don’t know who to turn to or where to ask. So you’re already in this position of vulnerability and potential marginalisation, and the services you are seeing are designed to manipulate you.

In Poland, we’ve seen a rollback of abortion rights within the last two years and seven women dying. We’re also seeing the rising popularity of far-right parties who are anti-abortion. So although Germany recently repealed one of its anti-abortion laws that was a hangover from the 1930s, it’s also got [far-right political party] AfD at 20% in the polls. AfD are massively anti-abortion and use the replacement rhetoric, so the more influence they get, the more contested abortion is at risk of becoming. In Britain, we send women to prison for abortion, we have really outdated abortion laws. Although you can generally get an abortion in Britain, it’s still contested, and it’s not inevitable that you’ll get the support that you need. So I think it’s just always being aware that it’s not secure, that bad things can happen. And the more we see the rise of far-right and hard-right parties who are willing to use abortion as a cultural issue, to politicise abortion, or to try and use it to rally support, there’s never room for complacency.

Megan Clement — What are the best ways to fight back against these movements and attempts to rollback women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights?

Sian Norris — The best bit of my job is the fact that most days, I pick up the phone and talk to people who are doing incredible work in really contested spaces. I recently wrote an article about two organisations in Kenya, where abortion is recognised as a constitutional right but only permitted in really strict circumstances. They provide advice to people on all aspects of sexual and reproductive health, but particularly on how to access safe and legal abortion within the restrictions of the law. I was recently on a panel with [Rose Wakikona] from Uganda who’s working on the anti-LGBT laws there and supporting human rights in what has become a complete nightmare for people who are really vulnerable. There’s so much incredible activism, energy and grassroots support in every country. It’s really important to remember that, because we are in a period of quite severe backlash and things aren’t going well. But there’s huge potential for change. Latin America is leading the way. We’re seeing a mix of legal pressure and political pressure, which is coming from groups like Women’s Link Worldwide, who are putting on suits and getting into the courtroom. But there’s also that grassroots work of picking up the phone, talking to young people, changing minds, having open discussions. The combination of those two forms of activism is so important. We can’t all be waving banners and shouting, we can’t all be on the phone talking to young people, and we can’t all be in the courtroom. But when we bring these things together, we can really effect change.

Megan Clement — I ask everyone this question: what gives you hope in your work?

Sian Norris — There’s a complacency of just assuming progress always goes one way and we’ve been shown quite categorically that is not the case. But there is progress and energy and we don’t have to let the far-right win this. We don’t have to accept that narrative for women and women’s bodies. We can push back. There are always inspiring organisations, women and men and LGBT people working together to create change, and we should be connecting with them and championing them.

Ready for kick-off?

The Impact newsletter will be covering the Women’s World Cup this summer! Why? Because football is a feminist issue.

If you’re anything like me, you spent your childhood years being told that football was not for girls — not to play, not to watch. But football is for girls, and it’s for women and queer people and non-binary people and people with disabilities. Football is for everyone. Football is also political, and mirrors the feminist issues we encounter every day, from the pay gap, to gender policing, to climate activism and racism. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

Of course, if you already love football (and who on this planet could not love Wendie Renard or Megan Rapinoe?), then you’re in the right place. But if you think football is not for you, let this newsletter and the magnificent footballers meeting in Australia and New Zealand try to convince you this summer. There will be drama. There will be queer love stories. There will be tea. There will be backflips. What more could you want?

Our World Cup coverage launches with the first match on July 20th. See you there!

You’re invited!

In partnership with The Gender Beat, we are launching a new report — Gender is Part of Every Story: The Global Landscape of Gender and Feminist Journalism — at a live online event on July 27 at 14:00 Paris time.

You can register to attend here. In the meantime, read the report’s key recommendations at this link (PDF).

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