Interview with Neil Datta
“The anti-abortion offensive in Poland is part of a global strategy”

Ordo Iuris, the Polish anti-abortion organisation, one of the most active promoters of the anti-abortion law, is part of an ultraconservative network which is active in Europe but was born in Brazil and operates under the name “Tradition, Family and Property”. Asia Leofreddi, the curator of the forum “Your body is a battleground: ultra-conservative strategies for restoring a ‘natural order’” planned at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in Mai 2021, interviewed Neil Datta. He is Secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF), a Brussels-based network of MEPs engaged in defending sexual and reproductive human rights in Europe and around the world. In May 2021, Neil Datta will be one of the speakers at the international conference organised in Frankfurt by the Frankfurter Kunstverein and the Research Centre Normative Orders of the Goethe University.

“What has happened in Poland has not happened because Poland is traditionally conservative and Catholic. This is only part of the story. In fact, the direction the country is taking is the result of the deliberate actions of certain individuals and organisations, acting not only on a national but also on an international level,” is the assesment of Neil Datta. For years, Datta’s research on so-called European anti-gender movements has attracted the attention of international activists and international research.

In March 2019, during the World Family Congress (WCF) in Verona, his report “Restoring the Natural Order”, which outlined the goals and strategies of the European ultraconservative network “Agenda Europe”, was distributed to all protest movements. In June 2020 he published another book entitled “Modern-day crusaders in Europe”. In it, Ordo Iuris, the Polish anti-abortion organisation, one of the most active advocates of the 2016 anti-abortion law (the basis of the current ruling), is described as the “antenna” of the Polish ultraconservative network “Tradition, Family and Property”, which is active in Europe but has its roots in Brazil.

On behalf of Frankfurter Kunstverein, Asia Leofreddi spoke with Datta to better understand what is happening from a transnational perspective. The conversation took place over the phone, as he was in lockdown in Brussels.


Interview with Neil Datta:

“The anti-abortion offensive in Poland is part of a global strategy”

by Asia Leofredd

Mr. Datta, your research shows that the recent events in Poland, which have led to a ban on abortion, including the one for fetal malformations, are not a local issue but part of a broader strategy involving international actors. Could you please explain this to us?

In Poland, the organisation most committed to restrictive abortion laws is the ultra-conservative Ordo Iuris Foundation (Institute for Legal Culture of the Ordo Iuris Foundation). It was Ordo Iuris that drafted the bill to ban abortion in 2016. From the analysis of the founding documents and the comparison of its members with those of other organisations, we know that the Ordo Iuris organisation is the Polish representative of a transnational network of ultraconservatives called Tradition, Family and Property (TFP). TFP was founded in Brazil in 1960 by the politician and landowner Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira and brings together about 40 Catholic and conservatively inspired organisations from all continents, united by a common vision and common goals.

What are the objectives of the TPF?

The TFP was founded as an ultra-catholic movement characterised by the fusion of social conservatism and economic hyper-liberalism and by years of collaboration with the extreme right, beginning with the authoritarian regimes in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. From Latin America, TFP then spread to Europe, where since the death of its founder in the late 1990s, the organisation, like many other international anti-gender movements, embarked on a process of renewal and became one of the most active European networks against the sexual and reproductive rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. Apart from the events concerning abortion in Poland, we have observed the occurrence of other events related to the activities of the TFP in recent years.

For example, in March 2017, the then Croatian Foreign Minister decided to take a stand against SheDecides, a global fundraising initiative for the protection of sexual and reproductive rights, and instructed Croatian diplomats to convince other member states of the European Union (EU) to take this position as well. A few years earlier, in 2013, a collection of almost 40,000 signatures (for a population of 1.5 inhabitants, editor’s note) in Estonia against homosexual rights unions forced the parliament to temporarily suspend deliberations on civil unions. Both actions were orchestrated by TFP organisations: “Vigilare” in Croatia and “Sihtasutus Perekonnaja Traditsiooni Kaitseks” (SPTK Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition) in Estonia.

In its terminology, Ordo Iuris can be considered a “national actuator” of the TFP. How does the organisation behave in Poland?

Ordo Iuris was founded in 2012 as a civil society organisation and in just a few years it has become one of the largest NGOs in Poland. Today, they are able to develop complex legislative packages that enable them to submit legislative proposals to the government, such as the one for the abolition of the right to abortion in 2016. Moreover, its actors are able to infiltrate the contexts in which decision-making processes take place. In Poland, Ordo Iuris is very closely linked to the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), and some of its members have been appointed by the government to very important positions. One example is the founder of Ordo Iuris, Aleksander Stepkowski, who was not only deputy foreign minister but also, in a very controversial appointment, president of the Polish Supreme Court.

And how does Ordo Iuris act internationally?

First of all, we have recently discovered that Ordo Iuris has set up similar organisations in other countries: Estonia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Croatia and the Netherlands. Apart from the fact that the same names keep appearing on their boards, we have also traced financial transactions from Poland to Lithuania and Slovakia. These are important sums for a Polish organisation, even 100,000 euros in one year, which leads us to believe that they are preparing the ground for similar actions in other countries. Secondly, they use legal strategies such as litigation and engage in advocacy activities with human rights organisations (editor’s note: to undermine them).

In February 2017 Ordo Iuris was granted consultative status at the United Nations and in May 2017 it registered an office in the EU district in Brussels. In October 2018, Ordo Iuris presented to the European Parliament, with the support of other Eastern European member organisations of TFP, an alternative to the Istanbul Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence: the Convention on the Rights of the Family. Finally, in Poland, Ordo Iuris appeared in front of the Polish courts and extended the case internationally, successfully supporting the case of a Norwegian citizen who applied for asylum in Poland to escape the social services who wanted to take her daughter away from her.

Mr. Datta, your research also shows that Ordo Iuris is linked, in addition to TFP, to another informal network created in 2013 within the framework of the European institutions: “Agenda Europe”. Who funds these organisations?

It is very difficult to find information about their funding. On the one hand, many of their donors want to remain anonymous; on the other hand, the organisations themselves hide their donors or lie about them. But more and more information is coming to light. For example in a recently published article on the Open Democracy platform it shows, that a large part of their money is put at disposal by the Christian Right in the USA. Moreover, if you look at the system, you will see that it also includes US billionaires who are very close to the Republican Party and often to its major donors. One of these families is the family of Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education during the Trump administration and owner of a foundation. So these families set up foundations in the United States, which in turn give money to think tanks and NGOs that spend it in Europe. They can spend this money in two ways. Either by partnering with local European organizations and funding meetings or by setting up their own offices in Europe.

An example of the latter is the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) and the Alliance for the Defence of Freedom (ADF), both also based in Brussels. Another resource of funds is Russia – and when I say Russia, I mean more privately acting persons, oligarchs close to the Kremlin, with sovereign and religiously conservative ideas, who set up foundations which then use their funds in Russia and other European countries. Among the most important of these are Vladimir Yakunin, an oligarch who created a foundation called Istoki (in Russian “origins”) to finance the anti-abortion movement Sanctity of Motherhood Programme, and Konstantin Malofeev, an extreme right-wing intellectual who created his own foundation called St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation. Both are not only very close to the Russian Orthodox Church, but also form alliances with European political parties, especially with extreme right-wing groups. For example, Malofeev and the representatives of his foundation regularly speak at Lega meetings in Italy or at Vox in Spain.

And in Europe? 

As far as European funds are concerned, they are more difficult to trace because in many countries organisations are not obliged to declare the origin of their funds. For example, we have tried to trace the Movimento per la vita (Movement for Life) funds in Italy, but because of these regulations it was not possible. There is, however, some information from which we have been able to detect a proximity between many anti-gender actors and rich private individuals. In Italy, for example, when the World Congress of Families was held in Verona, the platform Open Demoracy discovered that among its sponsors were Italian private individuals. In Spain we can see that there are organisations like CitizenGo that are linked to Spanish billionaires. Other organisations, finally, have very wealthy representatives on their boards of directors, whom they can ask unbureaucratically for financial support if necessary. A European peculiarity, for example compared to the United States, is that many of these people are former aristocrats, princes, countesses, archdukes and who now have no political power anymore. Finally, many European organisations also receive public funding. We notice, the more we examine the different countries, that a number of national actors are being enabled to absorb financial support from public funds. Last year, an article appeared in El País, which showed how some Spanish organisations received funds directly from the Spanish state or from the different autonomous regions, which they spent in the so-called Crisis pregnancy counselling (CPC). Not to mention the money provided by illiberal governments such as Poland, whose government openly funds anti-gender and anti-human rights organisations.

How have you reacted at a European level, or rather as the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, to what is happening in Poland?

After discussions with members of the Polish Parliament and local activists, we organised a petition to be sent to the Polish elites: the President, the Prime Minister and the President of the Parliament. In the letter we expressed our objections. The ban on abortion in cases of foetal malformations is the most inhuman part since in such cases the decision to terminate the pregnancy is rarely taken voluntarily by the woman. In most cases, the woman would actually have wanted to have a pregnancy, but for certain reasons this is no longer possible. Forcing her to continue is terrible. The letter was signed by parliamentarians from some twenty or thirty countries, including Laura Boldrini and Lia Quartapelle in Italy. We knew it would have ridiculous consequences, but it was necessary to record the international community’s concern about this decision and to give support to our allies in the Polish parliament and in civil society. Laura Boldrini and Lia Quartapelle have also written to the Italian Foreign Minister asking him to note his concerns and take appropriate action.

How can European civil societies respond to this phenomenon?

First of all, they must understand that they are facing a real threat that affects us all. This is not a Polish problem, but one that potentially affects every European country, since anti-gender organisations exist and operate in every one of them, which can find more or less room for manoeuvre depending on political expediency. Secondly, it is important to point out that we are dealing with a new movement which is different from the pro-family or pro-life movements we have dealt with over the past decades since this new movement has professional structures capable of acting at national and international level. A third aspect to bear in mind is that most of these organisations do not feel bound by our own democratic rules. This is very important because disputes can arise in areas we had considered consolidated. For example, the mobilisations of these groups against the Istanbul Convention came as a surprise to me too. I thought that we had reached a broad consensus on violence against women and I never thought that we would be involved in such disputes, even in countries that have already ratified the Convention.

You have to learn to think that progress on human rights cannot be taken for granted, things can go backwards, rights can be abolished. And so, with regard to democracy and the rule of law, it is enough to point out that the court which delivered the judgment in Poland was the subject of infringement proceedings by the European Union because the judges who belonged to it were directly elected by the PiS, without respecting the principle of the independence of the judiciary. It is therefore becoming increasingly necessary to create transnational networks between civil societies in different countries to exchange information, because one thing is certain: if these movements produce an initiative in one country, that initiative will soon appear in other countries. The tactics and strategies of these movements are the same, and networking will make it easier to identify them in time.

Some critics might claim that you want to restrict the freedom of expression of those who think differently from you, and that these organisations ultimately do nothing more than the same things that progressive movements do: creating networks for common goals, trying to influence legislative and political processes…

As far as freedom of expression is concerned, I believe that they have every right to say what they want, and I would even encourage them to say more. The more information they give us, the better we will be able to judge the extent to which their positions are unacceptable. However, it is important to remember that many of these organisations, for example in the United States, are classified as hate groups, especially against LGBTQI+ individuals. Freedom of expression does not mean impunity for what is said. Secondly, these organisations often talk about human rights and freedoms, but at the same time they work to harm them and it is important that both the general public and policy makers are informed. Because unfortunately, these organisations use the same methods as progressive movements, and that is part of their strategy.

But unlike progressive organisations, they try to hide their intentions by lying openly about what they do and who they are. They present themselves to the public as people with good intentions, but behind closed doors they cooperate with the extreme right and fascists with whom they share the same goals. They would never admit it, but now that everything goes public, they are forced to live with the consequences of all this.


The interview was published in Italian on 11 November 2020:

Preview picture: Tommaso De Felice