Austin Ruse is a friendly six-footer with a merry laugh, but he has plenty of enemies. Waiting to appear on CNN's Crossfire once, the pro-life Catholic prepared to greet his debating opponents from the pro-abortion Catholics for a Free Choice. One refused to share the studio's green room with him. The other refused to shake his hand.
High-tension snubs are usually reserved for the influential, and in nine short years that is what Ruse has become: As president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, or C-Fam, he heads a small, six-person nonprofit with a large agenda. As the only full-time pro-life group working at UN headquarters in New York, C-Fam often stands alone against what Ruse likes to call "UN radicals"-lobbyists and bureaucrats who manipulate global agreements to pressure often impoverished countries into changing abortion and other family-related laws.
For those countries the stakes are high: Colombia last May legalized abortion after activists charged in court that an existing ban violated women's rights, and referenced UN documents to prove it. The case rose to the nation's supreme court, and in its 655-page ruling the court referenced the UN stance.
Nor is the United States immune: The Supreme Court's 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision cited UN findings as part of a ruling that created a constitutional right to sodomy.
The UN produces dozens of tongue-twisting, mind-bending treaties, one of which the U.S. Senate could vote to ratify this year, the long-debated Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a 1979 treaty. "I believe in the fundamental issues that I work on, protecting life and family," said Ruse. "Second, I don't believe this is proper material for the UN-a global [organization] sitting in Geneva should not be directing families in Vanuatu how to lead their lives."
So far Ruse has had successes, but it's hard to tell from C-Fam's shoestring operation in New York and Washington. His Washington office may be on K Street, the den of high-powered lobbyists, but he shares his 10th-floor space with another organization in an elderly, narrow-faced high-rise. "We used to be the second-ugliest building on K Street," he jokes, "but they tore down the ugliest one."
Ruse began C-Fam in New York, after growing bored with sales work in magazine publishing. He quit to do volunteer work for a priest, surviving, he says, because he lived in a rent-controlled apartment on New York's Upper West Side.
By 1998 Catholic advocacy groups were looking for a pro-life salesman as they watched UN momentum gather toward making abortion a universal human right. The turning points: two UN-sponsored international conferences, one on population control in Cairo in 1994, and another a year later in Beijing on women's rights. Afterwards, Human Life International approached Ruse with an intriguing job offer: Get close to UN operations and do nothing but monitor how the body acts on social policy.
So Ruse and an assistant moved into a cramped, windowless office opposite UN headquarters along the East River. His initial salary of $28,000 was smaller than his usual expense account in the magazine business. Money proved to be a niggling worry over the next year. When funds in the bank dwindled to just $10,000, Ruse and his assistant decided they would forgo their salaries and go on unemployment if necessary.
Ironically, he says, Catholics for Free Choice sprung them out of the hole. When the group launched a 1999 campaign to rescind the Holy See's observer status at the UN, Ruse rented every Catholic mailing list he could find and pleaded for support to stop the pro-abortion Catholics. Outraged supporters-many of whom had not even heard of C-Fam or Ruse-contributed $500,000 in just six months. A strong counter-movement helped the Vatican maintain its status.
About the same time, Ruse began spending most of his Friday mornings chronicling the latest UN news on life issues in a weekly newsletter and faxing it to 125 mailing-list members. The newsletter, soon the "Friday Fax," quickly became mandatory reading in the pro-life community. Now electronic, it reaches 50,000 subscribers who on a moment's notice can double as an instant list of petition signers.
The Friday Fax draws hecklers like the International Planned Parenthood Federation for calling opponents "pro-abortion," but Ruse publishes their leaked internal memos and critiques their work openly, anyway. And sometimes they threaten to sue, but "not often enough," Ruse says. "Doggone it, they won't sue me."
C-Fam's opponents, who outnumber pro-life lobbyists at the UN by the hundreds, have found other ways to make life difficult for Ruse and his coalition. At important conferences, pro-lifers find themselves locked out of negotiations that other lobbyists attended. UN police have trailed him, having been told he might disrupt meetings. At one conference, a UN official confiscated C-Fam's list of some 150 attending pro-lifers. The next day, the list had turned into conference-wide fliers branding them fanatics.
Still, little victories have come. At the 10-year anniversary conference for women's rights in 2005, the United States submitted an amendment stating that the original conference did not create any new human rights, and gives no specific right to abortion. Ruse says this is an important point C-Fam keeps repeating: No UN document says abortion is a universally recognized human right. Neither does the vogue term "reproductive health" include abortion in its definition.
Pro-abortion lobbyists, however, act otherwise. With the U.S. move, they began gathering hundreds of signatures in a petition against the amendment. In one meeting, some 100 activists ringed two or three U.S. officials, belligerently questioning them about the decision.
Suddenly, Ruse walked into the room with about 10 pro-lifers, carrying a foot-high petition of 2,000 hastily printed-off emails and signatures supporting the U.S. position. The room fell silent, he recalls. Outnumbered on paper, the pro-abortion activists did not bother to present their petition.
But Ruse deputies Susan Yoshihara and Samantha Singson often encounter similar confrontations. During deliberations over a human-rights treaty for the disabled last August, the last round of negotiations-dealing with "reproductive health"-ran until midnight. Delegates suddenly shifted to a closed-door session outside UN headquarters, freezing out observers such as C-Fam, just as they began to hash out pro-abortion language. They met until 4:30 a.m.
When the round resumed later in the morning in a conference room Yoshihara said was "way in the bowels of the UN," Yoshihara arrived to find the door locked-another cloaked session countering the delegates' stated spirit of transparency. Yoshihara took up a bench outside with her laptop, gleaning tidbits from friendly delegates who walked out.
One opponent told her she and her colleagues were "disturbing the delegates." She replied, "We're lobbyists, so we're sitting in the lobby." In the end, delegates did insert the phrase "sexual and reproductive health" in the final treaty-code language opening the door to state-sponsored contraceptives and abortion services. But 15 nations stood firm, maintaining that the language did not include abortion.
Most Americans, even those who consider themselves pro-life, remain detached from what for C-Fam are wins over dry parliamentary language, but victories nonetheless. Ruse worries, however, that pro-lifers often lose in the next step. When the UN passes an international treaty, it then creates a committee to track how countries implement it. The CEDAW women's rights treaty may not pose a problem, but the pro-abortion experts who crowd its committee do. Already they have charged 37 countries with amending their abortion laws, even though the treaty does not mention abortion. The treaty does condemn exploiting women through prostitution. The solution, according to the committee: Legalize prostitution.
That's why C-Fam and Ruse, now 50, married and the father of a 1-year-old, says he is there. He knows he is an outcast and that the UN in-crowd won't invite him to its cocktail parties, and his enemies won't shake his hand. But that's just the way he likes it.