The Same Groups That Helped Overturn Roe and Attack Abortion Pills Are Also Lobbying Against the ERA

Anti-abortion groups, backed by the funders they keep secret from the public, have been lobbying against the Equal Rights Amendment for the past two years.

Abortion rights demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court on May 4, 2022. (Gayatri Malhotra / Unsplash)

Last week, far-right Trump appointee and Texas federal judge Matthew Kacsmaryk suspended the FDA’s approval of mifepristone—a medication used safely for decades by millions to terminate pregnancies. Kacsmaryk’s ruling was bolstered by far-right anti-abortion groups that took aim at abortion pill access for months leading up to his decision.

Dark money groups are attacking reproductive rights and ostensibly leaving no stone unturned. From supporting the Supreme Court’s right-wing faction responsible for overturning Roe, to spreading misinformation around medication abortion (which accounted for more than half of all abortions even before the Dobbs decision), anti-abortion groups are fighting to eliminate abortion access on multiple fronts. Their anti-reproductive justice efforts also include lobbying against the Equal Rights Amendment.

In March, on the eve of Women’s History Month, the U.S. Senate held the first committee hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) since 1984. The hearing focused on a joint resolution filed by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) that would remove the arbitrary ratification timeline and declare the ERA ratified—making it possible to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution as a safeguard against sex-based discrimination.

The resolution could also help protect abortion access post-Dobbs—which helps explain why anti-abortion groups, backed by the funders they keep secret from the public, have been lobbying against the ERA for the past two years.

Lobbying disclosures reveal that far-right, anti-abortion groups like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA, formerly Susan B. Anthony List), National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), Concerned Women for America (CWA) and Students For Life America (SFLA) have spent unknown sums lobbying against the ERA in 2021 and 2022. The exact amount of dark money these groups have spent to undermine the amendment is undisclosed to the public, because groups are only required to give the sum total of all lobbying expenses, without a breakdown of the amount spent on each issue.  

SBA is a 501(c)(4) founded in 1993 as an anti-abortion counter to the pro-choice EMILY’S List—with the express purpose of “pursu[ing] policies that will ultimately end abortion.” SBA’s primary objective will harm those denied abortion access, who according to peer-reviewed, longitudinal research, are three times more likely to be unemployed, four times more likely to live below the federal poverty line, and more likely to stay in abusive relationships, compared to those who received abortion care. 

Employing 12 active state lobbyists, SBA spent $2 million on lobbying in 2021 and 2022, which included lobbying against the ERA during both congressional sessions. The far-right group specifically opposed H.J. Res. 17, which would have removed the ratification deadline in 2021. 

This is just one of the many anti-abortion efforts made by SBA throughout the years. The group also launched a $2 million anti-abortion ad campaign ahead of oral arguments in the Dobbs case, which overturned Roe v. Wade. They also filed an amicus brief in support of Dobbs and two other major cases challenging RoeWhole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt and June Medical LLC v. Russo

It is also active at the state level. For example, SBA was invited, alongside Students for Life, to the gubernatorial signing ceremony of three Montana laws—which would make medication abortion nearly inaccessible in the state and restrict surgical abortion—in recognition of their work to help pass the bills.

According to 990 filings, SBA’s total revenue has seen a swell in recent years. What was an annual revenue of $11 million in 2019, increased to $21 million in 2020, and $16 million in 2021. The group has received significant funding from dark money pass-through groups that have been tied to both the oil mogul Charles Koch and far-right lawyer and long-time leader of the Federalist Society Leonard Leo, although the true source is kept secret by such conduits. 

Leonard Leo speaks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 2019. Leo is a maestro of a network of interlocking nonprofits working on media campaigns and other initiatives to pressure lawmakers and generate public support for conservative judges. (Michael Robinson Chavez / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Despite Koch’s claims to support reproductive rights, the Koch-linked Center to Protect Patient Rights and Freedom Partners have been two of SBA’s largest funders in the past. 

SBA has received money from several shell groups linked to Leonard Leo—Judicial Crisis Network, The 85 Fund, Wellspring Committee and America Engaged—and in 2017 gave Leo the Distinguished Leader Award at their annual gala “for [his] work on confirming Justice Gorsuch.” Leo is responsible for stacking the Supreme Court with judges hand-picked for their anti-choice positions, which ultimately led to the reversal of Roe

Women Speak Out” is SBA’s PAC and its largest funder is a man: Dick Uihlein, an Illinois billionaire who recently targeted the Wisconsin supreme court race ahead of the Tuesday, April 4, election that determined the makeup of anti-choice judges on the court. Ultimately, Wisconsin voters elected progressive Judge Janet Protasiewicz to the state’s supreme court, defeating the conservative Daniel Kelly by an 11-point margin. The election was critical because of pending legal challenges to a statute criminalizing abortion that was adopted in 1849, well before women were able to vote.

The National Right to Life Committee, a 501(c)(4), is the oldest and largest national anti-abortion organization in the U.S., and they lobbied against the ERA every quarter of 2021 and 2022. 

Founded by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, NRLC has written anti-abortion model bills prior to the ruling on Dobbs and released so-called “model” legislation that bans all abortions with an exception for the death of the mother. However, several post-Roe cases demonstrate that these narrowly drawn exceptions still endanger the life of the pregnant people, who can be forced to endure dangerous non-viable pregnancies until the point at which doctors and their lawyers decide their life is sufficiently at risk.  

In 2022, in response to reports on a 10-year-old rape victim obtaining an abortion, NRLC’s general counsel, far-right attorney James “Jim” Bopp, said that the group’s proposed legislation would have banned that abortion. He said that NRLC believed she should have carried the baby, and “as many women who have had babies as a result of rape, we would hope that she would understand the reason and ultimately the benefit of having the child.”

There are myriad adverse effects adults face when forced to carry unwanted pregnancies, but adolescent pregnancies pose uniquely dangerous risk factors that could be life threatening. NRLC’s position in this heart-rendering scenario ostensibly fails to do the very thing it purports to stand for: “protect human life.” 

Notably, Bopp orchestrated Citizens United in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which has unleashed hundreds of millions in dark money in federal and state elections since 2010.

The Roberts Court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed century-old campaign finance restrictions designed to limit the corrupting influence of money in elections. This ruling ushered in a massive increase in political spending from outside groups, allowing anti-choice billionaires to flood elections with dark money spending to back anti-choice candidates without the public knowing who is trying to buy those offices.

Founded by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Right to Life Committee—the oldest and largest national anti-abortion organization in the U.S.—has written anti-abortion model bills and lobbied against the ERA every quarter of 2021 and 2022. (Stephen Lam / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

SBA and NRLC are not the only anti-abortion groups lobbying against the ERA. Dark money groups Concerned Women for America and Students for Life of America, have also lobbied against the amendment, in addition to helping overturn Roe and being embroiled in the fight against medication abortion access

CWA is a far-right group promoting anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ policies. It was launched in 1979 to oppose the feminist movement that it portrayed as anti-God and anti-family. According to CWA’s head Penny Nance (whose name was floated to be Trump’s ambassador for global women’s issues), CWA claims to have 500,000 members across the country, purporting to be the country’s largest right-wing women’s public policy organization. CWA has received millions from the Koch network and hundreds of thousands of dollars from Leo’s Judicial Crisis Network. The Koch network’s groups gave CWA, an avowed anti-abortion group, more than $10 million between 2010 and 2013, but Koch representatives say the network has not more recently funded that group.

Koch representatives have also claimed they do not take a position on abortion; however, Koch’s political operations—KOCH PAC and Koch’s Americans for Prosperity—have routinely aided anti-choice candidates. Additionally, the Koch network more recently gave over $1.3 million from 2013-2017 to the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, but have said their funding for SBA List was for “get out the vote efforts,” not for its policy agenda—even though they were listed in the 990s as “general support.” The fact remains that the Koch network funded a group whose express mission is to attack reproductive rights and whose focus is on getting anti-choice voters out to vote for anti-choice candidates and get them elected in order to destroy abortion access.

Lobbying disclosures from 2022 show that CWA lobbied against the ERA. Ahead of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s ERA hearing, CWA hosted a press briefing before the hearing (they were also joined by spokespeople from SFLA and NRLC) where Nance pushed their usual anti-trans fear-mongering and anti-abortion talking points to attack the ERA. During the actual hearing, the anti-abortion Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas)—who has received a perfect score on CWA’s congressional scorecard—asked that a letter written by CWA be submitted to the record. 

Students for Life America (SFLA) is another anti-abortion extremist group that lobbied against the ERA in both 2021 and 2022. SFLA is a 501(c)(3) with a sister “action arm” 501(c)(4) group called Students for Life Action (SFL Action). Both are led by anti-choice extremist Kristan Hawkins, and the co-chairman of the board of Students for Life of America is Leonard Leo. SFLA forms part of Leo’s massive dark money network. Leo recently became the sole operative trust fund trustee  from the largest ever donation given—a whopping $1.6 billion from electronics magnate Barre Seid. SFLA and its (c)(4) action arm took in almost $19 million in combined revenue in 2021.

SFLA’s extreme anti-abortion stance includes promoting medical misinformation about supposed “abortion pill reversal,” lobbying state legislatures to adopt their “life at conception” model bill (an anti-abortion legislation with no exception for rape or incest), and supports the prosecution of FDA-approved abortion pill providers.

Autumn Lindsey Higashi (a SFLA national spokesperson), was also recorded stating she thinks women who have abortions should be prosecuted—no longer a fringe prospect, given that 21 South Carolinian Republican legislators recently signed onto a bill that would make it legal to execute anyone who received an abortion

Anti-abortion dark money and religious groups, with millions of dollars backing their efforts, are fighting against abortion access on multiple fronts, including through opposing the ERA. From trying to convince people the Dobbs decision “empowers women,” to attacking legislation that could actually empower women, these groups are relentlessly fighting to eliminate the freedom for people to choose their destiny without interference from the state—or from groups trying to impose their religious beliefs about abortion as legally binding restrictions on others.  

Editor’s note: True North’s Lisa Graves 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.