Trump administration officials and prominent anti-choice activists appeared at a conference hosted by the Hungarian Embassy earlier this month designed to promote government policies to encourage women to have more babies.
The “Make Families Great Again” conference, which was held at the Library of Congress on March 14, promoted far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s seven-point “Family Protection Action Plan.” The plan is “designed to promote marriage and families and spawn a baby boom” through financial incentives, according to a Washington Post report on the event. White House special assistant Katy Talento, White House Strategic Communications Director Mercedes Schlapp, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Senior Advisor Valerie Huber spoke at the event.
HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley confirmed Huber’s attendance at the event to Rewire.News. Huber, best known as an abstinence-only activist who helped rebrand abstinence-only sexual education as “sexual risk avoidance,” has held several high-level political positions within HHS. She was appointed senior policy advisor at the department’s Office of Global Affairs in January.
Talento, who works on the president’s domestic policy agenda, has pushed myths about contraception, including false statements that contraceptives cause abortions, miscarriages, and reduced fertility. She reportedly helped craft the Trump administration’s policy to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit.
According to a schedule tweeted by Katalin Novák, the Hungarian state secretary for family and youth affairs, three members of Congress—U.S. Reps. Andy Harris (R-MD), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), and Chris Smith (R-NJ)—gave the event’s closing remarks. Requests to their offices for comment were not returned.
Under Orbán’s leadership, Hungary has chipped away at access to abortion care. In 2011 the Hungarian parliament succeeded in inserting personhood language giving fetuses legal recognition into the country’s constitution. And in 2012 the government refused to make medication abortion available in the country.
Tony Perkins, president of the anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, also spoke at the event, as did representatives from the Heritage Foundation and Concerned Women for America. Perkins praised Hungary’s commitment to what he called “pro-family” policies in a blog post the day after the event, though he noted that the United States isn’t likely to support direct subsidies to increase the birth rate.
Robert Berschinski, senior vice president of policy for nonpartisan advocacy group Human Rights First, suggested according to the Washington Post that “Hungary’s birth plan is at odds with accepted best practices in other countries.”
“The critique is—in effect and by design—it does not encourage women to rejoin the labor force, but keeps them home and pregnant in more of a traditionalist sense through financial incentives,” said Berschinski, who previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights and “helped lead U.S. policy toward Hungary in 2016,” according to the Post.
According to a Christian Post report, Orbán’s plan is designed to boost the country’s birth rate to “replacement level,” the fertility rate at which a population sustains itself, without taking a more open approach to immigration policy. Hungary “spends nearly 5 percent of its GDP towards incentives for those in the predominantly-Christian nation to get married and have children—lots of them,” the Christian Post reported.
“Orbán is really quite scary,” Amanda Klasing, acting co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with Rewire.News. “Our big concern is that this anti-gender equality, anti-woman, anti-LGBT rhetoric is being picked up in all of these different places by leaders that are prepared to undermine human rights. And this is one way that they’re doing it. The Trump administration is embracing Hungary’s approach to reproduction with the tacit approval of its efforts to undermine the civil society working on women’s rights.”
Hungary’s programs have reportedly drawn interest from the Trump administration and U.S. conservatives who support its anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ priorities. “We are working closely with the U.S. administration on family issues,” Novák, who gave a keynote address at the event, told the Christian Post. “They would also like to get some detail on our pro-family policies and the measures that we have introduced in the last nine years.”
Cooperation between the two governments sparked alarm from Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition. “The ‘Making Families Great Again’ conference demonstrates the insidious connections between authoritarian governments, far-right nationalists, and anti-choice movements who conspire to strip women and gender diverse people of their rights,” she said in a statement to Rewire.News. “Under Viktor Orbán, Hungary has systematically dismantled efforts to achieve gender equality and provide women with the information and services they need to exercise control over their bodies and lives.”
Kowalski tied the event’s agenda directly to efforts by the Trump administration to roll back global support for women’s rights and gender equality at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women last week. “The Trump administration has now brought this extreme agenda to negotiations at the Commission on the Status of Women, where they have tried to put the rights of ‘the family’ above those of women and girls. It’s important that people see these efforts for what they are: a brazen attempt by ideologues in the Trump administration to rob women of their agency and choice.”
According to Klasing, it’s impossible to separate Hungary’s anti-immigration policies from its anti-choice domestic agenda. “Xenophobia and racism plays out on policies related to women’s bodies,” she told Rewire.News. “There’s so much more that goes into the choice to whether or not to have a family, or whether or not to give birth. There’s so many policies that could improve families and that’s not what this is about. This is about controlling women’s bodies.”