The Same Dark Money Groups That Helped Overturn Roe Are Also Behind Attacks on Abortion Pill

Dark money groups are fighting to eliminate one of the easiest to access and safest forms of abortion in this country: the abortion pill.

Sen. Josh Hawley, flanked by his wife Erin Hawley, is sworn in by then-Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 3, 2019. The Hawleys have deep ties to several anti-abortion groups, who have their sights set on limiting access to abortion pills. (Alex Edelman / AFP via Getty Images)

A federal judge installed by Donald Trump could declare a nationwide ban on the abortion pill mifepristone as soon as this week

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s right-wing faction overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, abortion pills have become a vital option for millions of people, especially for those living in states with abortion bans. More than half of all abortions in the U.S., even before the Dobbs ruling reversed decades of federal law protecting abortion access, were medication abortions.

The same dark money groups that helped overturn Roe—and then argued that the edict “empowered women”—are now taking aim at abortion pill access. 

In November 2022, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has been designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.This lawsuit is an unprecedented challenge to mifepristone, a medication that has been used for over two decades to terminate early pregnancies and manage miscarriages

ADF has received six-figure sums from DonorTrust and Donors Capital Fund, entities designed to hide the identity of their huge right-wing donors. However, some of those underwriting ADF are known.

The Charles Koch Institute, created from the fortune of billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, also gave ADF $275,000 in 2020. Koch and his late brother David have asserted that as libertarians they are “pro-choice,” but that spin is refuted by the long history of the Kochs’ aiding the election of politicians and appointment of judicial candidates hostile to women’s reproductive rights.

ADF could have filed this lawsuit virtually anywhere in the country, but they chose Amarillo, Texas, where there would be a 100 percent chance of far-right Trump appointee, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, hearing the case. 

Kacsmaryk previously worked for the right-wing litigation operation called the First Liberty Institute and had previously written in opposition to access to abortion, access to birth control and against divorce. First Liberty Institute frequently calls ADF “our friend” in pursuing their shared agenda for getting laws changed through judicial rulings. First Liberty’s leader in D.C., Benjamin Bull, was ADF’s chief counsel and the architect of its litigation strategy.

“He is an anti-LGBT activist and culture warrior who does not respect the equal dignity of all people,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) during his Senate confirmation hearing, reading from a letter of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “His record reveals a hostility to LGBT equality and to women’s health, and he would not be able to rule fairly and impartially in cases involving those issues.”

One of the ADF lawyers listed in the lawsuit trying to get mifepristone banned is anti-abortion zealot Erin Hawley, who works with ADF. 

She is married to insurrectionist Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and played a significant role in reversing Roe. Erin Hawley was co-counsel to the state of Mississippi where she coordinated the amicus briefs filed in support of the abortion ban in Dobbs. Despite her name not appearing on any of the amicus briefs (and ADF not publicizing which briefs submitted to the Supreme Court Erin Hawley helped coordinate), an analysis of Hawley’s commentary on Dobbs in the months leading up to the decision shows that the right-wing faction of the Supreme Court parroted many of her claims

In addition to working for ADF, Hawley also works for another Koch-funded dark money group, the so-called Independent Women’s Forum (IWF). IWF is a pay-to-play group that has a history of taking anti-woman positions and actively backed the confirmation of Trump’s far-right Supreme Court nominees who then overturned Roe

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)

Significantly, IWF has received over $5 million from the dark-money network helmed by Leonard Leo, the right-wing anti-choice lawyer who hand-picked the slate Trump chose from for the Supreme Court and other judicial appointments. According to True North Research’s tally, Leo’s network had raised more than $600 million to influence who was appointed from 2014 through 2020. 

But those figures were incomplete, because in 2020 a Chicago industrialist named Barre Seid secretly made the largest political advocacy donation in history to Leo, transferring assets worth $1.6 billion via a nonprofit dubbed Marble Freedom Trust.

Seid has long funded anti-choice politicians and groups, as well as efforts to deny climate change and oppose environmental protections and has deep ties to Leo, who has also worked to roll back reproductive rights and environmental regulations. 

The financial power Leo’s groups have wielded to not only capture the U.S. Supreme Court but also state supreme courts, state attorneys general offices and more will likely grow exponentially because of Seid’s massive investment. 

ADF and Hawley herself have claimed that abortion pills endanger women’s lives—even though abortion pills are widely considered safe, with serious side effects occurring less than one-third of 1 percent of the time. Peer-reviewed research has shown that mifepristone is safer than Tylenol, which is widely available without a prescription. Complications and deaths due to medication abortion are exceedingly rare and often related to Clostridium infections, which can also happen in pregnancies carried to term and in miscarriages. 

This is not the first time Hawley has spread abortion misinformation. Last year, in a congressional hearing before the Senate Oversight and Reform Committee, Hawley made the medically false argument that abortions for ectopic pregnancies were not abortions. 

Another dark money group called Concerned Women for America (CWA) has also made the claim that the abortion pill endangers women—ignoring the fact that studies show carrying a pregnancy to term poses a greater risk of death than having a medication abortion, or any type of abortion for that matter. 

CWA is an anti-abortion, right-wing Christian group that has received millions from the Koch network and hundreds of thousands of dollars from Leo’s Judicial Crisis Network.  

Penny Nance, the head of CWA, was present at Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)’s press conference where he proposed a national abortion ban. CWA referred to the anti-abortion legislation as a measure that would “align federal law with American values”—even though poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans continue to support abortion access. (This position was reaffirmed in the midterm elections, where abortion rights proved to be a winning issue in many races.)

CWA has joined the ranks of far-right dark money groups attacking abortion pill access. They recently endorsed new Texas legislation that would defund universities that provide students with medication abortions, punishing institutions that provide medical services that would allow their students to continue pursuing their education. 

CWA has also demanded that CVS and Walgreens not sell the abortion pill following the FDA’s new federal policy that would allow the medication to be offered by the retailers. CWA’s California chapter joined forces with other anti-abortion groups to protest at Walgreens’ shareholders’ meeting last month. (It is unclear if CWA members were part of the anti-abortion group that broke into the meeting room.)

CWA is not the only anti-abortion group protesting these drug stores. The dark money anti-abortion extremist group Students for Life of America (SFLA) declared that banning abortion pill access was one of their primary objectives post-Roe

Later this month, SFLA’s “Cancel Abortion Cartels” event will be held at Walgreens’ corporate headquarters in Illinois and marks the first of a series of anti-abortion pill access events planned for the year. 

SFL Action—SFLA’s 501(c)(4) action arm—in its “2021-2022 State Legislative Report,” took credit for inspiring and introducing over two dozen bills that would restrict or ban abortion pill access. 

SFLA has also claimed that the FDA provides women “bottom of the barrel health and safety standards.” This claim is coming from a group that encouraged women to dangerously engage in “abortion pill reversal,” a practice that was stopped in clinical trials because women experienced dangerous hemorrhaging. Additionally, Students for Life, which Leonard Leo helps steer as a board member, has been lobbying state legislatures to adopt its “life at conception” model bill, an extreme abortion ban with no exception for rape or incest.

According to Reproaction, Kristan Hawkins, the head of SFLA, supports prosecuting those who provide safe and effective access to FDA-approved abortion pills. Notably, Hawkins’ national spokesperson, Autumn Higashi, was recorded stating she thinks women who have abortions should be prosecuted. These views are even more alarming given that SFLA considers birth control pills “abortifacients.” In other words, SFLA ostensibly does not make a distinction between the use of the birth control pill in order to prevent pregnancy and medication abortion.  

SFLA does not disclose its donors, but the group’s revenue has increased substantially in recent years. SFLA and its (c)(4) action arm took in almost $19 million in combined revenue in 2021. SFLA has received funding from Leo’s network and large, anonymous grants funneled through the “dark money ATM” DonorsTrust, as well as the Schwab Charitable Fund and the National Christian Charitable Foundation. 

Dark money groups are fighting to eliminate one of the easiest to access and safest forms of abortion in this country. Using rhetoric about life, such groups are fighting against individual freedom while ignoring how forced pregnancies can lead to financial ruin, mental and physical health conditions, and even death for the living and breathing humans forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will.

Editor’s Note: True North’s Lisa Graves and Caitlin Mahoney contributed to this report. 

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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.