Anti-Abortion Groups Are Coming for Birth Control—Just as Reproductive Rights Activists Warned

Dark money anti-abortion and pay-to-play groups are predictably responding to the FDA’s over-the-counter birth control pill decision with disinformation.

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 Sept. 13, 2022. The group, and others like it, wage public and private campaigns against abortion access, as well as birth control access. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

In July, the FDA approved the first over-the-counter contraceptive pill, Opill (norgestrel). Opill is expected to be available for purchase online, in pharmacies, and convenience and grocery stores, without a prescription in early 2024.

With barriers to reproductive healthcare increasingespecially for Black, Latino and poor people—and more than 19 million women in the U.S. living in “contraceptive deserts” without easy access to reproductive health clinics, Opill will be a vital tool in the fight for reproductive justice.

Dark money anti-abortion and pay-to-play groups are predictably responding to the FDA’s over-the-counter birth control pill decision with disinformation—deriding this basic action by the federal government to protect the right to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Ahead of the FDA’s Opill decision, Hadley Heath Manning, a staffer at Independent Women’s Voice (IWV) and Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), published an op-ed in the New York Times where she purported to layout a universal “conservative” position on birth control. Most conservatives believe that birth control is not a “positive right,” she wrote, but a lesser desire, unworthy of legal protection—which she described as “a personal choice.”

Manning failed to address how “personal choice”—regarding contraception or abortion—cannot exist in the absence of legal policies that protect access to make such “choices.” She also whitewashed the role that the pay-to-play group that pays her has played in dismantling the “personal choice” of millions of Americans regarding their reproductive health.

Her employer, IWF, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, purports to not take a position on abortion. Along with its 501(c)(4) arm called IWV, IWF has collectively received more than $6.5 million from groups tied to Leonard Leo, the anti-abortion lawyer who created Trump’s shortlist of nominees for the Supreme Court. These nominees were expressly chosen to overturn Roe v. Wade—and IWF and IWV backed them.

IWV also orchestrated a PR campaign downplaying the Dobbs decision, as reported by the Washington Post—part of an effort to blunt election blowback against Republicans.

In other election cycles, IWV spent money to aid U.S. Senate anti-abortion candidates who falsely claimed that women could not get pregnant from rape, or that if they did then it was “God’s will,” after they made those outrageous claims.

Just as IWF and IWV downplayed the devastating and deadly consequences of overturning Roe in 2022, they seem to be running a similar PR campaign on over-the-counter birth control. The campaign hopes to preempt voter backlash against the GOP agenda to block access to contraception, while taking a revisionist approach to IWF/V’s own actions affecting that issue.

After spending millions to help get anti-abortion judges installed on the Supreme Court, IWF/V has done a relatively small lift of expressing support for the FDA’s Opill decision on over-the-counter access to birth control pills.

But, in expensive amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court, they have sided with religious groups in litigation to limit employees’ access to birth control and argued against federal legislation (namely, the Affordable Care Act) that would protect the right to have insurance companies help pay for patients’ birth control.

Following the FDA’s decision, IWF’s Emma Posey Waters—who also works at the massive dark-money juggernaut, the Heritage Foundation—spread disinformation about the birth control pill: that increased access to birth control leads to increased abortions. However, multiple studies over the years have proven that access to birth control helps reduce abortion rates.

The Heritage Foundation—with its history of opposing abortion and contraceptive access—has deep financial ties to the right-wing dark money pass-throughs called Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which are led by an alum of other Koch-funded groups.

Anti-abortion group Students for Life of America (SFLA), where Leonard Leo is board co-chair, has also joined the over-the-counter birth control disinformation campaign. SFLA’s 990 filing shows that the 501(c)(3) and its (c)(4) action arm took in almost $19 million in combined revenue in 2021 from large anonymous grants.

SFLA’s action arm is currently suing South Dakota over a financial disclosure law to keep their funders secret.

SFLA has a long history of taking extreme anti-abortion positions.

  • It has supported bills that would restrict access to out-of-state abortion care for undocumented immigrants and a bill that could harm abortion clinics under the guise of preventing human trafficking (rules designed to prevent modern-day slavery).
  • The group has also pushed legislation defending crisis pregnancy centers, which regularly present themselves as abortion providers and then pressure abortion seekers to continue their unwanted pregnancies.
  • SFLA has pushed a six-week federal abortion ban—a period in which most people are not yet aware of their pregnancy—and threatened to work to unseat any legislator who does not support this extreme ban.

Their position on contraception is just as extreme.

  • Kristan Hawkins, president of SFLA, is on record stating she thinks the birth control pill should not be legal.
  • SFLA also actively fights against access to birth control on college campuses. It has also protested against Plan B and lobbied Congress to ban medication abortion.
  • It opposes Opill, even claiming that allowing access over the counter will “empower abusers.” This assertion is especially disconsonant with the reality of many Americans, given that an estimated 324,000 pregnant people in the United States experience domestic violence annually. For 1 in 6, the abuse starts for the first time during pregnancy.
  • SFLA spokesperson Autumn Higashi has also attacked the FDA for approving access to an over-the-counter birth control pill, declaring that birth control is “detrimental to women’s health.” She also asserted that, despite the instructions that accompany the medicine, somehow access to over-the-counter medicine violates the principle that “women should have informed consent.” (This argument is dubious given her organization’s determination to remove bodily autonomy and the power to give informed consent when pregnant.)
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, holds up a copy of the New York Times front page from June 24, 2022, as she speaks at a rally by anti-abortion activists and to mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v .Jackson Women’s Health, which erased federal protections for abortions. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Decades of evidence show progestin-only mini-pills, like Opill, are safe and between 93 to 99 percent effective in preventing unwanted pregnancy.

Yet, Dr. Ingrid Skop, the director for medical affairs at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s research arm called the Charlotte Lozier Institute, has also spread disinformation on the effectiveness of the over-the-counter contraceptive pill and falsely conflated the pill with abortifacients. In an interview, Skop—the same doctor who recently testified in support of Texasextreme anti-abortion law—claimed that there are safety concerns with Opill as an “abortifacient,” even though Opill is not an abortifacient. Its purpose is to stop pregnancy from occurring, not eliminate pregnancies.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA) has received millions of dollars over the years, with their most recent 990 filing showing an annual revenue of $16 million in 2021. The group has received significant funding from dark money pass-through groups that have been tied to the oil mogul Charles Koch.

Despite Koch’s claims of supporting reproductive rights, his network gave over $1.3 million from 2013-2017 to SBA, an anti-abortion group. SBA 990s reveal the money was given for “general support.” SBA has also been funded by dark money groups connected to Leonard Leo.

This fight over access to contraception affects millions of Americans, who have a fundamental right to determine their reproductive destiny through access to birth control over Griswold v. Connecticut, which has protected these constitutional rights for more than 60 years. The most recent available data shows that 45 percent of U.S. pregnancies are unintended.

With the regressive actions of anti-abortion dark money groups, abortion access is diminishing by the day. Access to a prescription-free contraceptive pill, the second most widely used form of contraception—more than ever—is an essential tool in the fight for reproductive justice.

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.