Dark Money Anti-Abortion Groups Peddle the Absurd Idea That a Post-Roe World Empowers Women

Decades of research has shown that being forced to carry to term an unplanned pregnancy can often be physically dangerous and financially ruinous. 

Pro-abortion rights protesters demonstrate outside of a church on Aug. 6, 2022 in New York City. The protests occurred at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, where a small number of anti-abortion activists worship. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images)

In their fight to eliminate abortion access in all 50 states, right-wing dark money groups are peddling the notion that abortion access “harms” women and, even more outlandish, that the Dobbs decision overturning Roe “empowers” them. 

This position suggests women’s sole value is centered around motherhood. It also uses pseudo-feminist claims to detract from the very real dangers a post-Roe landscape presents for people and the myriad ways abortion access has helped advance gender equality in the U.S. in the last five decades. 

Erin Hawley—married to insurrectionist Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.)—recently testified before Congress following the Dobbs decision where she claimed abortion “has incalculably harmed women, families and society. … The Dobbs decision gives America the opportunity to reaffirm motherhood, and in doing so, truly empower women.” Yet, decades of research has shown that abortion access has improved women’s overall well-being, and conversely, that being forced to carry to term an unplanned pregnancy can often be physically dangerous and financially ruinous

How Right-Wing Dark Money Groups Dismantled Abortion Access

Erin Hawley works for two far-right dark money groups that played a pivotal role in dismantling abortion access in the United States. 

She has deep ties to a group that calls itself “Alliance Defending Freedom” (ADF), even though it attacks reproductive freedoms. Hawley served as co-counsel to the state of Mississippi where she coordinated and helped write amicus briefs that supported the overturning of Roe and Casey

ADF (which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group) has received large sums from DonorTrust and Donors Capital Fund—entities that hide the identity of huge donors. Some of those underwriting ADF are known, however: The Charles Koch Institute, one of the tentacles of its namesake and right-wing oil billionaire, gave ADF $275,000 in 2020 (the most recent year with such disclosures available). 

Hawley also works for another Koch-funded dark money group, the “Independent” Women’s Forum (IWF). While IWF claims not to take a position on abortion, many of its top staffers have attacked abortion rights. IWF paid Hawley $617,000 between 2017-2020. 

IWF and its action arm, the Independent Women’s Voice (IWV), also have a history of supporting anti-woman, anti-choice politicians. For example, IWV made expenditures for promotions like robo-calls in support of GOP U.S. Senate candidates like Todd Akin after he claimed rape victims couldn’t get pregnant and Richard Mourdock after he said that a woman who was pregnant from rape carried a “gift from God.”

IWF and IWV also backed the Supreme Court’s right-wing faction that ultimately led to Roe being overturned. This included a defense of “family man” Brett Kavanaugh and attacks on Christine Blasey Ford when she testified under oath accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault. IWF/V’s leader, Heather Higgins (the Vicks VapoRub heir) took credit for writing the talking points for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) when she gave her speech for Kavanaugh and cast the near-deciding vote for his confirmation. He is part of the far-right faction on the Supreme Court that overturned Roe —despite claiming under oath that he recognized it as legal precedent just three and a half years ago.

Heather Richardson Higgins, president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice, speaking at a Tea Party event in Phoenix, Arizona, in February 2011. The group has long opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, paid family and medical leave, and countless other pro-women and pro-family measures. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

IWF/V have received more than $5 million from the dark money network helmed by “Trump’s Judge Whisperer,” right-wing lawyer Leonard Leo. The network of Leo-tied groups has raised nearly $600 million in recent years to capture the U.S. Supreme Court and change the law to reverse our rights.

The New York Times recently reported that Leo’s network has been bolstered to the tune of $1.6 billion by billionaire industrialist Barre Seid, an anti-abortion extremist who worked with Leo to create a nonprofit trust (the Marble Freedom Trust) that Leo can use to attack reproductive rights and other freedoms. That is perhaps the largest single gift ever made to a dark money group, and it could allow Leo to spend nearly $200 million a year based on returns without diminishing the capital investment in the trust. That’s a lot of dark money in the hands of an anti-choice zealot who has sought to capture not just the U.S. Supreme Court but other state supreme courts, state attorneys general and more.

Erin Hawley is not the only dark money actor who wants you to believe that banning abortion access liberates women. The Leo-tied anti-abortion group “Students for Life of America” (SFLA), along with other groups favored by Leo, such as the “Ethics and Public Policy Center” (EPPC) and “Concerned Women for America” (CWA), have made similarly ludicrous claims concerning the anti-choice movement and gender equality. 

SFLA is an extremist, dark money, anti-choice group led by operative Kristan Hawkins. Leo and his business partner, Greg Mueller, the CEO of CRC Advisers, sit on its board. SFLA opposes exemptions for rape and claims abortion is never needed as a life-saving measure—despite the multiple medical circumstances that prove otherwise. They also oppose any form of contraceptive that prevents the implementation of a fertilized egg, claiming they are “abortifacients.” (This would include copper IUDs, the primary form of IUD and the most widely used reversible contraception in the world.)

Young Americans overwhelmingly oppose abortion bans, and 74 percent of adults under the age of 30 take the position that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But Hawkins has tried to position the anti-abortion movement as one that offers a “more empowering vision to young women than abortion rights feminism does,” and that “the anti-abortion movement tells them they can have it all”—with the obvious exception being bodily autonomy. 

Research shows that people who are denied abortion access and are forced to carry out unwanted pregnancies are more likely to live in poverty and have less educational opportunities. Their physical and mental health is also more likely to be compromised—with Black, Latinx, Indigenous and poor people potentially experiencing a greater negative impact on their lives from the elimination of abortion access. 

SFLA does not reveal its donors, but the group’s revenue has swelled in recent years, with almost $12 million in revenue reported in 2020. They have also received funding from the “Catholic Association,” another cog in Leo’s network. SFLA also received large grants funneled through pass-throughs like the “dark money ATM” DonorsTrust, Schwab Charitable Fund, and an entity called the National Christian Charitable Foundation. 

EPPC is another anti-abortion group that filed an amicus brief in Dobbs. It has received $488,000 from the Leonard Leo-tied 85 Fund, also known as the voter suppression group that calls itself the “Honest Elections Project.” Leo also sits on the board of EPPC, which has aided his court capture. EPPC fellow and former president Ed Whelan, a close ally of Kavanaugh and Leo, worked with CRC during the Kavanaugh nomination to concoct a false alibi for Kavanaugh to try to discredit Ford after her allegations became public. 

EPPC’s Ryan Anderson and Alexandra DeSanctis also published a book claiming abortion access has “harmed women,” ignoring how abortion access has helped to increase educational attainment and workforce participation for millions of American women—key factors to economic security. 

Anderson recently participated on a panel discussion with the right-wing Napa Institute, another Leo-tied group, where he admitted that the anti-abortion crusade has yet to win in the court of public opinion. 

“We need to be in the persuasion business. We need to be in the convert-making business, both as a theological matter converting people to the faith, but also as a moral and political matter converting people to the cause,” Anderson said.  

According to him, one possible way of accomplishing this is by gaslighting the public into thinking that abortion access doesn’t help women in the fight for equity, while essentializing women as people whose only real value is in birthing and raising children.

Penny Nance, leader of the dark money group CWA, has similarly reduced women to breeders and child rearers. CWA has received millions from the Koch billionaire network and hundreds of thousands of dollars from Leo’s Judicial Crisis Network. CWA has a history of opposing legislation that would actually benefit most women, like the Equal Rights Amendment

At this summer’s CPAC, Nance derided Planned Parenthood for empowering women to take control of their lives by providing healthcare. “Planned Parenthood wants a woman’s money, they want her for a few hours, and they never want to see her again. We’re [the anti-abortion movement] the ones that care for women.”

Dark money groups are appropriating progressive ideas about women’s empowerment to try to sway public opinion toward their anti-choice efforts, while absurdly claiming that anti-abortion extremists are the ones who truly care for women. 

But a marker of true progressive and feminist efforts begins with the understanding that one person’s liberation cannot be at the expense of someone else’s oppression. And there is nothing more oppressive than taking away someone’s agency and bodily autonomy by dictating that they carry a pregnancy against their will.

Note: True North’s Lisa Graves, Evan Vorpahl and Julia Peck contributed to this report.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Ansev Demirhan is a senior researcher at True North Research. She earned her Ph.D. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill and is trained as an intersectional feminist historian. Her research focuses on dark money groups and their opposition to policies that advance equity, reproductive justice, LGBTQIA+ rights and public education. Demirhan has bylines in Ms. magazine, The Guardian, Truthout and Rewire News Group.