Influential think tank wants next president to roll back rights in US and abroad – and has drafted policies to do so

Last month, populist leaders from around the world gathered for the Europa Viva 24 summit in Madrid. Headlines from the event were dominated by the big names in attendance - Argentinian president Javier Milei, France's Marine Le Pen, Chile's José Antonio Kast, and Italian and Hungarian prime ministers Giorgia Meloni and Viktor Orbán - and the fact it ended in a diplomatic row between Argentina and Spain.

But away from all of this noise and fury was a lesser-known speaker: Roger Severino, a former official in Donald Trump's administration and the vice-president for domestic policy at influential US think tank The Heritage Foundation.

In a six-minute speech delivered in Spanish, Severino described Trump as a victim of lawfare launched by "the lefties" and said young people are subjected to a "culture and a medical system" that tells them to "explore all sexual appetites at age of 10" and that "abortion is not about destroying babies but about healthcare".

Adding that young people are also taught "that if you are uncomfortable with your sex you were probably born in the wrong body, and surgeries can fix that mistake", he said: "I'm here to tell you that God doesn't make mistakes."

Severino is one of the architects of the Heritage Foundation's blueprint for a second Trump term, named 'Project 2025'. This aims to reshape the federal state in 180 days, fire tens of thousands of public servants and replace them with people loyal to the conservative cause, undermine the separation of powers, attack public education, and erase or restrict the rights of women, LGBTQ people, workers, migrants and Black people.

It also seeks to dismantle policies to tackle climate change and push for an energy agenda reliant on fossil fuels.

Its plan for doing so is set out in the 'Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise', an 887-page playbook published by the think tank, whose mission is "to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual liberty, traditional American values, and strong national defence".

It is not absurd to say that some of the Heritage Foundation's suggestions may well become law if Trump is elected in November. The politically well-connected organisation was founded in 1973 and published its first 'Mandate for Leadership' as Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 - later boasting that Reagan had enacted more than 60% of its policy recommendations.

Severino, who was Trump's director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote Project 25's section on health. Of the 199 times the word 'abortion' is mentioned throughout the document, 149 are in this chapter, which urges the federal government to remove (or restrict as much as possible) any sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights whose oversight it has responsibility for.

Severino suggests eliminating the approval of abortion pills and banning their distribution by mail; barring the use of federal funds to transport people seeking an abortion in a state where it's illegal to one where it isn't; cutting federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers; and removing emergency contraception from workers' health insurance coverage.

In contrast, it's hard to find any proposals to tackle the US's real public health crises: opioids, falling life expectancy and rising maternal and infant mortality rates. This is perhaps unsurprising; the Heritage Foundation sees the Supreme Court's overturning of the 1973 Roe decision that protected abortion up to 23 weeks as a victory - but also as "just the beginning".

In the two years since Roe's repeal, 21 states have banned or drastically restricted abortion, and legislative and judicial battles are raging in others attempting to follow suit. But the number of abortions carried out annually has actually increased, according to multiple studies - and so grow the dystopian battleplans for the continued war on reproductive autonomy. Several US cities have made it illegal to use their roads to transport people seeking abortions from a state where abortion is prohibited to one where it is permitted.

Project 2025 wants the Department of Health to go further still, urging it to "protect life, conscience and bodily integrity" and place "strong respect for the sacred rights of conscience" at the top of its agenda. Severino's chapter calls for legislation requiring states to record data on abortions, including the number of terminations carried out, the reasons for them, the method used, the length of the pregnancy, and the state of residence of the person seeking an abortion.

It also suggests that scientific research conducted with public money should focus on "the risks and complications of abortion" and on "correcting and not promoting misinformation about the health and psychological benefits of giving birth compared to the health and psychological risks of intentionally taking a human life through abortion".

But Project 2025's focus isn't only on reproductive health.

The president who takes office in 2025, the foreword says, must "remove from every existing rule, regulatory agency, contract, grant, regulation, and federal law the terms sexual orientation and gender identity, diversity, equity, and inclusion, gender, gender equality, gender equity, gender, gender-sensitive, abortion, reproductive health, reproductive rights, and any other term used to deprive Americans of First Amendment rights" (which protects freedom of religion, freedom of speech and press, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances).

The future government must also "immediately cease the collection of data on gender identity, because it legitimises the unscientific notion that men can become women (and vice versa) and encourages the phenomenon of the constant multiplication of subjective identities", Severino adds.

An anti-rights past and future

The Heritage Foundation is not the only highly influential institute involved in the writing of Project 25. Of the 100 organisations that sit on its advisory board or directly contribute to the playbook, several have been crucial to the advancement of extremist agenda in the US in recent decades and years.

In 2018, four years before Roe was overturned, Mississippi banned abortions after 15 weeks in the state - with legislation modelled on a bill conceived by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-LGBTQ hate group and which sits on the Project 25 advisory board. The law was challenged and stayed by two courts on the grounds that it was unconstitutional because it violated Roe.

The law's promoters took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, aiming to challenge and ultimately overturn Roe. Their strategy relied on the court having a right-wing majority, which was ensured by Leonard Leo, a conservative lawyer and activist who has founded a network of groups and funding hubs. Leo, who had already been influential in the appointment of three other justices, successfully lobbied Trump to appoint three anti-abortion members to the court - achieving a conservative supermajority of six out of nine justices. Leo's network of nonprofits has reportedly donated millions of dollars to organisations that sit on the Project 2025 advisory board since 2021.

The result has been that around a third of women of reproductive age in the US, as well as other people who do not identify as women but can get pregnant, now live in a state where abortion is banned or severely restricted, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The Heritage Foundation, ADF and Leo didn't answer our requests for comments.

But these groups are not content with pushing their anti-rights agenda in the US alone. As openDemocracy investigations show, some 30 US conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, ADF and the Leo's Federalist Society have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on spreading this agenda around the world. "In a way, Heritage was created for that," said Brazilian feminist activist and researcher Sonia Corrêa. "One of its founders, Paul Weyrich, was a super transnationalised character."

Corrêa referred in particular to Conservative strategist Weyrich's relations with Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, a Brazilian activist who founded the Catholic, anti-communist Tradition, Family and Property network in the 1960s. The network's European branch in 2013 helped to set-up the Polish conservative organisation Ordo Iuris, which has drafted bills to ban abortion, criminalise sex education, restrict in vitro fertilisation and declare municipalities 'free of LGBTQ ideology'.

This global agenda seems to be gaining new momentum, and Project 2025 is helping to ensure its spread.

Valerie Huber is another of the playbook's co-authors who, like Severino, was a senior official in Trump's Department of Health. There, she was the architect of the anti-abortion Geneva Consensus Declaration on Women's Health and Protection of the Family (GCD), which the Trump administration presented to the world in 2020.

The declaration was described as a "Christian nationalist manifesto" in an article by Gillian Kane, the director of global policy and research for Ipas, an international sexual and reproductive rights organisation. Though the US itself withdrew from the GCD when Joe Biden took office, it now has 36 signatory countries - most of which have poor democratic and human rights credentials.

The GCD has no legal status and does not ask member states to do anything, but says they should commit to four pillars: improving women's health, protecting human life, strengthening the family, and protecting sovereignty and national values. For the avoidance of any doubt, the document makes clear there should be "no international right to abortion".

When Biden withdrew from the GCD in the early stages of his administration, many believed the manifesto would be a dead letter. They were wrong.

"How and why does the GCD persist, even after it has lost its status as a US-sponsored foreign policy initiative?" asked feminist and medical anthropologist Lynn Morgan in a 2022 article published in the scientific journal Developing World Bioethics. "The answer to this question," she continued, "reveals a US-led anti-abortion movement that is investing heavily in building and sustaining an international coalition that, it hopes, will remove sexual and reproductive rights from the agendas of multilateral organisations."

This is exactly the understanding of the Project 2025 authors, who mention the GCD several times in chapters about foreign policy and aid. "The US will have more impact by including like-minded nations and building on the coalition launched from the GCD," they say, "with the vision of shaping the work of international agencies working as a united front."

Project 2025 proposes the US Agency for International Development rename its Office of Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment as the 'Office of Women, Children and Families'. This office, it says, should work to "implement" the GCD and "prioritise partnerships with local organisations, including faith-based organisations".

Since leaving the Department of Health in 2021, Huber has created what Kane describes as the "tools and momentum" for countries to put the GCD into practice: the 'Protego Health: The Women's Optimal Health Framework' programme, which was launched by Huber's Institute for Women's Health in October 2023.

Speaking on a podcast hosted by Ben Carson, Trump's secretary of housing and urban development, in January, Huber said: "We created Protego to be able to work very closely with governments so they effectuate in-country what they had agreed in the [GCD] coalition."

Guatemala became the first country to implement Protego in late 2023, when the outgoing government of conservative Alejandro Giammattei - who is barred from entering the US due to alleged involvement in "significant corruption" - signed a memorandum of understanding with Huber. In March 2024, three US Republican senators wrote to Giammettei's successor, progressive democrat Bernardo Arévalo, urging him not to withdraw from the GCD. Arévalo has not yet said whether his government will do so, but even the act of sending the letter, Kane noted, was "a clear violation of the Geneva Consensus' proclaimed insistence on protecting national sovereignty".

In February, Uganda's government also signed an agreement with Huber to implement Protego, at a ceremony attended by representatives from eight African countries. Huber continues to lobby governments around the world to join the GCD. In May she visited Burundi, where she met first lady Angeline Ndayishimiye and the president of the Senate, Emmanuel Sinzohagera.

She has also lobbied Peru, where two conservative legislators organised a congressional meeting in March to call on ministers to sign the declaration. Huber spoke at the meeting via a video link. The government has not yet signalled whether it intends to sign the agreement. Huber and her Institute for Women's Health didn't respond to openDemocracy's request for comment.

International conservative organisations are also joining the fight to get governments to join the GCD - further highlighting the global nature of this anti-rights network. One week before the Lima meeting, an online petition calling for the Peruvian government to sign up appeared. It was launched by CitizenGo, a platform created by the Spanish homophobic group HazteOir that has close links to Spain's nationalist and xenophobic Vox party, which organised the Europa Viva 24 event in Madrid last month.

Such international meetings, as well as the far-right campaigns and strategies, have no ideological novelties compared to the ideas that Weyrich and Plinio Corrêa shared and nurtured in 1960s and 70s, according to Corrêa. Instead, she said, they have new characteristics. Today the far right and religious ultra-conservatives are part of an "heterogeneous ecosystem", including some Catholics and Evangelicals, as well as those from other religions and secularists, she said.

A second difference is "the way of doing politics", which is no longer "reactionary, in the sense of conservative far-right forces invested in sustaining the established order, even by means of coups d'état. What is happening now is what we call the 'conservative revolution' or the 'rebel right'. This didn't happen in the 1960s."

Finally, Corrêa highlighted a third new characteristic: the links between these groups are no longer bilateral or trilateral, but "a whole ecosystem" that includes actors from Africa, Europe and the Americas. In recent months there have been large, internationally attended meetings like the far-right summit convened in Madrid, in Washington, Budapest, and Brussels. These are strong examples of the "complex ecosystem-style groupings", Corrêa argued. "That didn't really happen 50 years ago."

From openDemocracy

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