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White House officials attend Hungarian Embassy event urging women to have more children

The moon rises behind Karancs Mountain near Karancskeszi village, Hungary, on March 20, 2019. Hungarian officials are trying to raise birth rates in the country by urging women to have more children.

AP

By ARIANA EUNJUNG CHA | The Washington Post | Published: March 23, 2019

To look at the Twitter feed of Katalin Novák, the Hungarian minister of family affairs, you'd be hard-pressed to find evidence of the global outrage confronting her government. Members of the European Parliament have accused it of undermining human rights and democratic values, and the main bloc voted Wednesday in an unprecedented action to suspend the membership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party from its coalition.

But Novák's social media feed is full of accolades from Americans - most prominently, from social conservatives in President Donald Trump's administration.

They include White House special assistant Katy Talento, White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp and several members of Congress, who on March 14 attended an invitation-only conference - "Make Families Great Again" - hosted by the Embassy of Hungary at the Library of Congress in Washington.

U.S. Health and Human Services senior adviser Valerie Huber, known for her support of abstinence-only education, was a keynote speaker at the event to promote Orban's seven-point "Family Protection Action Plan," designed to promote marriage and families and spawn a baby boom.

Also present were prominent antiabortion leaders, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and representatives from the Heritage Foundation's DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.

Of Perkins and Talento, Novák tweeted: "They praised HU's commitment for strengthening #families and encouraged me to further support them." She also shared praise from Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., whom she quoted as saying, "#Hungary is a beacon of hope. Thank you to PM #Orban that he is a friend of families."

The display of support from U.S. officials marks a 180-degree pivot from the Obama years, when Hungary was all but ostracized to signal U.S. opposition to Orban's restrictions on free speech, his anti-immigration policies and his efforts to weaken the nation's constitutional protections.

"The Trump administration has gone in a completely different direction and embraced them warmly," said Robert Berschinski, who helped lead U.S. policy toward Hungary in 2016 as deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights.

The increasingly close relations between the United States and Hungary have drawn concern from civil society and advocacy groups. Hungary's birth policies made headlines recently after the government announced its seven-point plan to entice Hungarian women to have more children, with offers that include waiving income taxes for life for those who have four or more babies and subsidies to buy larger cars for their larger families.

Health and Human Services Department spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said Huber attended the event "to promote the administration's priorities," but declined to comment beyond confirming her attendance.

Hungary has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world at 1.45 total births per woman and is seeking to boost its dwindling population through births rather than through immigration.

In 2015, Hungary drew the ire of its European neighbors for refusing to allow asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East into the country during Europe's refugee crisis. In February, the government launched a poster campaign accusing American philanthropist George Soros and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker of a plan to flood the country with migrants - an idea the European Commission called a "shocking" and a "ludicrous conspiracy theory."

Berschinski, who works at Human Rights First, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in New York and Washington, said 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," he said.

Mary Alice Carter, executive director of Equity Forward, a watchdog project that conducts research and provides public education about reproductive health, accused Hungary's family policies of being about "ensuring that their population is not an immigrant population but a white Christian population."

"To have U.S. representatives at that kind of event is incredibly disturbing," she said.
 

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