Watchdog groups claim Human Life International (HLI), a little-known nonprofit, has illegally funded anti-choice campaigns in developing countries that criminalize abortion care.
Campaign for Accountability (CfA) filed a complaint this week asking the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate HLI’s activities in the Philippines, alleging the anti-choice group blatantly violated tax laws by engaging in undisclosed political lobbying in a country where abortion care has been illegal for decades.
“HLI should not be able to benefit from its 501(c)(3) status here in the United States while simultaneous flouting IRS rules prohibiting its involvement in partisan politics abroad,” CfA Counsel Alice Huling told Rewire.News in an email. “This is all the more egregious when the foreign country is one with such high maternal mortality rates and where abortion is illegal and highly stigmatized. A tax-exempt public charity like HLI should be working to solve these issues, not exacerbate them.”
Equity Forward released its own report Wednesday accusing HLI of promoting laws that harm and imprison women for their reproductive health-care decisions. Equity Forward says that HLI spent more than $1 million in the Philippines since 2000 and led the charge against the country’s 2012 Reproductive Health Bill, which funds free contraceptives, supports reproductive health services in government hospitals, and requires public schools teach sex education. The law passed in December 2012 after being stuck in the Philippine Congress for 14 years.
HLI claims to be “the world’s largest pro-life and pro-family educational apostolate,” with affiliates in more than 100 countries. Its headquarters in Virginia works on “a complex web of anti-abortion causes, organizations, businesses and even a private school,” according to Equity Forward.
“HLI portrays itself as compassionate and uninterested in criminalizing women for their reproductive health care decisions, but these bombshell developments revealing their influence overseas tell a drastically different story. Their role in working to jail women in El Salvador, the Philippines, and elsewhere cannot be ignored,” Mary Alice Carter, executive director of Equity Forward, said in a statement.
CfA’s January 30 letter to the IRS says HLI violated its tax-exempt status by advocating for laws prohibiting abortion and endorsing anti-choice political candidates in the Philippines in 2010, 2011, and 2012, while failing to report those expenses on tax forms.
Abortion has been criminalized in the Philippines for more than a century, and the procedure is banned there with no exceptions. Despite this, clandestine abortions are conducted widely because of the high level of unintended pregnancies and low contraception use, according to the Guttmacher Institute; the illegal and unsafe nature contributes to the country’s high maternal mortality rate. Even doctors in the Philippines report being biased against women who have undergone abortion care, Guttmacher reports.
About 1,000 Filipino women die each year from abortion-related complications, and an untold number suffer from untreated complications, according to Guttmacher. Abortion stigma prevents Filipinos from seeking medical care after receiving a clandestine abortion, Guttmacher notes. Projections based on data from 2000 show that 100,000 people were hospitalized for abortion complications in 2012.
HLI’s tax forms show it regularly makes grants to organizations in East Asia, including the Philippines, to promote anti-abortion measures and anti-choice candidates. The CfA complaint names Rene Bullecer, a physician who serves as the HLI country director in the Philippines, and Ligaya Acosta, HLI’s regional director of Asia and Oceania and a resident of the Philippines.
HLI’s grants to organizations in the Philippines significantly decreased in tax year 2014, according to CfA, coinciding with HLI’s failure to block the Reproductive Health Bill in December 2012 and to elect more anti-choice candidates to the Filipino Congress in May 2013.
HLI also organized anti-choice rallies, lobbied local politicians, targeted reproductive health agendas, and directed representatives to vote against progressive bills, including abortion rights measures, the letter notes.
HLI is known to have “ties to violent anti-abortionists and extreme tactics [that] made it too controversial for the UN,” and HLI was denied consultative status to the UN in 1993, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 2014. In 1997, the group set up C-FAM, an SPLC-designated hate group, as its United Nations lobbying arm, and “shifted its rhetoric to include vague terminology like ‘traditional values’ and ‘respect for sovereignty,’ (useful for countries that employ repressive policies and wish to avoid scrutiny for human rights violations).”
HLI was founded by an ultra-conservative D.C.-based Catholic priest who long claimed the pro-choice movement was full of Jews perpetrating another Holocaust. HLI shares its office building in Virginia with LifeSite, a Catholic anti-choice website, Salon reported this week. Salon reports that an HLI spokesperson has denied CfA’s allegations. HLI did not respond to Rewire.News by press time.
“HLI should be investigated and held accountable for its actions,” CfA’s Huling said a the press release.