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Family man

Abortion | At the United Nations, resident thorn-in-the-flesh Austin Ruse makes enemies by promoting pro-life values

Issue: "Marathon man," Feb. 17, 2007

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.

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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.

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