The Dark Money Fight Against Abortion Access: A Year in Review

Far from standing down after they succeeded in abolishing the constitutional right to abortion, anti-abortion donors and activists have ramped up their efforts to limit reproductive rights.

Abortion rights activists protest as guests arrive for the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s annual gala and fundraising dinner at the National Building Museum on September 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

In the year since the Supreme Court reversed half a century of legal precedent with its Dobbs decision, dark money anti-abortion groups have not abated their assault on reproductive rights. Due to that edict by the Republican appointees to the nation’s highest court, only 15 states have protected abortion access and anti-abortion groups are spending heavily to dismantle access state-by-state along with federally approved abortion drugs.   

Behind this attack on our rights is a web of groups funded by ultra-rich donors and coordinated by far-right lawyer and longtime Federalist Society leader Leonard Leo.

The Dark Money Groups that Overturned Roe v. Wade

Following the 2016 election, Donald Trump brought in Leo to “advise” him on potential Supreme Court nominees, leading to the placement of three controversial, far-right judges on the Court, installed with the help of Leo’s dark money court capture operation: Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrrett.

From 2014-2020, Leo’s network raised nearly $600 million to pack the courts and change the law, True North Research has detailed.

In 2020, Leo received the largest known political advocacy donation in history when right-wing billionaire Barre Seid transferred $1.6 billion to the “Marble Freedom Trust.” The latest Marble IRS filing reveals that Leo funneled at least $411 million to right-wing groups from 2020 to 2022.

Leo-tied anti-abortion groups, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA) and Concerned Women for America (CWA), also helped pressure politicians to confirm Trump’s judicial nominees.

SBA has received money from Leo’s Concord Fund—also known as the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), The 85 Fund, America Engaged and the now disposed Wellspring Committee. Notably, SBA’s leader, Marjorie Dannenfelser, revealed that she spoke with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Lindsey Graham about who would replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg the week the justice died in September 2020.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) speaks during a news conference on Sept. 13, 2022, to announce a new bill on a national ban on abortions after the 15-week mark. Also pictured, at left, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America Marjorie Dannenfelser. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

CWA has also received hundreds of thousands from JCN and co-hosted an “I Stand with Brett” event with them on Capitol Hill in support of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. This event co-hosted by the Independent Women’s Voice, a 501(c)(4) that claims not to take a position on abortion, while supporting anti-abortion politicians and Supreme Court candidates hostile to reproductive rights. IWV and its 501(c)(3) Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) have received more than $6.5 million from Leo’s network in recent years and helped get the right-wing faction, responsible for overturning Roe, confirmed to the Court.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Southern Poverty Law Center designated anti-LQBTQ hate group, also played a pivotal role in overturning Roe

In 2018, at the Evangelicals for Life Conference, ADF senior counsel Denise Burke declared the organization had a “strategic plan … to challenge Roe. We’re basically baiting [the pro-choice movement], ‘Come on, fight us on turf that we have already set up and established.’ …We have carefully targeted states based on where we think the courts are the best.” That same year, ADF drafted the Mississippi abortion ban that was challenged in Dobbs.

Erin Hawley, ADF’s senior counsel who was also paid by IWF’s legal arm, helped coordinate Dobbs amicus briefs. Several of Hawley’s anti-abortion talking points were parroted by Supreme Court justices in their opinions. Hawley is married to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who helped foment the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

ADF’s 2021 990 revealed an annual revenue of $104.5 million. Much of ADF’s revenue has come from donor-advised funds (DAFs), pass-throughs that shield the true source of funds. Leo’s network has increasingly relied on DAFs to pass money between groups in his network.

Notably, Leo’s Marble Freedom Trust gave Schwab Charitable Fund, which has given millions to ADF, almost $150 million in 2021, although there is no direct proof those funds or significant funds were directed by Leo to ADF because the DAF helps obscure who the true original donors are. That is, Leo may or may not be funding ADF, which is certainly advancing a common legal agenda against abortion and more. 

A Year of Attacking Reproductive Rights Post-Roe

Following the overturn of Roe, anti-abortion groups jumped into action to downplay the detrimental physical, emotional and financial effects of the Dobbs decision. Some even argued the decision “empower[ed] women,” such as Erin Hawley in her congressional testimony—appropriating pseudo-feminist claims in a way that centers a woman’s primary value around motherhood.

IWV launched its own PR campaign ahead of the 2022 midterm elections to downplay the importance of abortion access. With most Americans in support of abortion rights, IWV sought to minimize the impact of Dobbs on keeping the Republican Party from retaking control of both houses of Congress. It leveraged its veneer of “independence” to try and convince voters there were more important issues to consider at the ballot box, even running an ad featuring an older woman making that claim to a younger woman. Most voters disagreed.

IWV also launched an attack on transgender Americans, presenting them as a threat to cisgender women. This attack may also be an attempt to distract from the right-wing’s role in overturning the constitutional right to abortion—helping Republican officials present themselves as the party defending women, as the Guardian recently reported. All the while, IWV and its political allies have assailed equal rights for women, long-standing protections for survivors of domestic violence, and even paid family and medical leave.

Many anti-abortion groups, including the Leo-tied Students for Life group, have recently turned their focus to attacking medical abortion, the most common form of abortion in the U.S.

Despite more than 80 scientific studies concluding medical abortions are safe, SBA’s Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) has generated misleading studies that cast the method as “dangerous.” CLI’s staffers reject peer-reviewed scientific studies, such as those finding mifepristone to be safer than Tylenol, to instead spread SBA’s self-generated pseudo-science.

CLI, in turn, cited this disinformation as “evidence” in briefs filed in abortion-related court cases, such as the current mifepristone lawsuit Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. Food and Drug Administration. ADF’s Erin Hawley, senior counsel on the case, leaned into this so-called “research” to argue that medical abortion endangers women’s lives—ignoring that less than one-third of 1 percent of people experience serious side effects.

Hawley previously spread anti-abortion misinformation before the Senate Oversight and Reform Committee when she falsely claimed abortions for ectopic pregnancies are not abortions.

Hawley has also argued restricting abortion medicine would be unproblematic because “surgical abortion is available.”  In reality, surgical abortions have been outlawed in over a dozen states due to the Court’s Dobbs ruling. Many others limit abortion access to the first few weeks of pregnancy—before many people learn they are pregnant. Hawley and ADF are actively working to outlaw them everywhere in the U.S.

The main plaintiff of the mifepristone case, Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine (AHM), is a “shadow medical community,” wrote Jordan Smith of The Intercept. It’s made up of five member groups, including the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG), whose website lists ADF and CLI as partners. ADF is representing AHM in the lawsuit and has previously contributed $25,000 to AAPLOG. CLI’s 990 from 2019 also revealed they paid AAPLOG $200,000 for a “clinical trial.”

In addition to SBA and CLI each filing a brief in AHM v. FDA, SBA released polling on the case conducted by Leo’s for-profit CRC Research, along with corresponding messaging guidelines.

At the federal level, SBA has supported:

SBA and CWA also supported legislation to allow Congress to overrule the scientific expertise of the FDA in approving medicine.

SBA, which expanded its state affairs team just weeks before Roe was overturned, has mobilized canvassers on the ground in battleground states.

SBA has also engaged at the state level through its Women Speak Out PAC, which not only endorses candidates but also bankrolls millions of dollars worth of ads. As True North Research documented, Women Speak Out’s biggest known recent funder is actually a man: Dick Uihlein, a right-wing billionaire who got even richer selling boxes during the peak of the pandemic. 

This spring, that PAC spent over $2 million supporting a far-right, anti-choice candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court—a race that saw historic spending for a seat that will likely be the deciding vote in a legal challenge to the state’s archaic 174-year-old abortion ban.

Dark money groups are looking ahead to 2024 in other ways. SBA, for example, is partnering with former Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway (who also has financial ties to Leonard Leo and to IWF) to train 2024 Republican candidates on abortion messaging.

Dark money groups, far from standing down after they succeeded in abolishing Americans’ constitutional right to decide if and when to have children, have ramped up their efforts to further limit reproductive rights since the right-wing faction on the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade a year ago.

From state and federal lobbying to manipulating our courts, we can expect these groups and their ultra-rich donors to continue and, given the chance, to escalate to the level of a nationwide abortion ban.

True North Researcher’s Lisa Graves, Alyssa Bowen and Evan Vorpahl contributed to this article.

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About and

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.
Caitlin Mahoney is a research fellow at True North Research where she tracks extremism and dark money in U.S. politics. Her previous research has examined renewable energy policy and local environment justice issues. She earned her B.S. in science, technology, and society (STS) at Stevens Institute of Technology.