Dark Money Fuels the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Push to Control State Legislatures

The day before the Supreme Court handed down the devastating Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania, members of the extremist anti-abortion group Students for Life of America flooded into Washington, D.C. Their gathering was nominally for a national convention of high school and college students. But tucked into the now-secret schedule were four hours of private “training” for state legislators conducted by Students for Life staff while students were busy with other activities.

Secret meetings funded by anonymous donors to push the outlawing of abortion at the state level — an expressed goal of Students for Life — seem to fly in the face of the leave-it-up-to-the-states argument that the group and other dark money opponents of abortion rights have collectively touted. Justice Samuel Alito himself in his Dobbs opinion claimed that the end of Roe was a victory for democracy and so-called “states’ rights,” rather than what it actually is: A direct attack on reproductive freedom.

This talking point is little more than a cover for the anti-democratic, dark money efforts to prevent abortion from staying safe, accessible and legal across the United States — even though a majority of voters want that.

Far right lawyer and Federalist Society fundraiser Leonard Leo plays a pivotal role in the network of groups set on banning abortion throughout the country. Known as Trump’s “judge whisperer,” Leo handpicked Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch for Trump’s list of nominees to the Supreme Court based on their alignment with his agenda, which included reversing Roe. Leo was also instrumental to the appointment of Alito and John Roberts, and worked on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas.

Leo now helms a web of dark money groups that have raised over $580 million in recent years and has been trying to roll back decades of precedent on reproductive freedom, LGBTQ+ rights, environmental protections, the separation of church and state, and more.

As Truthout previously reported, powerful right-wing groups with a few anonymous, ultrawealthy donors have targeted state courts and attorneys general to prevent them from protecting abortion rights at the state level in a future without Roe. That same playbook has been unfolding in state legislatures, where anti-abortion dark money groups like Students for Life have flooded the field with so-called “model” legislation.

Now that they have dismantled the federal constitutional rights protected by Roe, state legislatures are ground zero in the far right’s battle to force states to impose their personal religious beliefs about abortion as binding law on those of any faith or none.

State Abortion Bans Backed by Dark Money

2021 smashed the record for the most abortion restrictions enacted in state legislatures (108) in a single year, and 2022 is on track to break it again. Residents of 22 states woke up the day after Roe was overturned to laws on the books that effectively banned abortion. Four more states are poised to pass similar legislation.

Nearly half of these bans were pre-Roe, some dating back to the 1800s. But most can be traced to religious groups trying to impose their faith through legal mandates. The most recent bills are tied to dark money groups that authored “model” bills to destroy abortion rights, lobbied for them to pass, and sought to tee up cases for the U.S. Supreme Court to use to overturn Roe.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal arm of the Christian right and Southern Poverty Law Center-designated anti-LGBTQ hate group, authored the 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi that was challenged in Dobbs. The right-wing faction controlling the court likely selected the Dobbs case for the express purpose of overturning Roe: It was one of only 66 cases accepted for briefing and oral argument this term out of more than 8,000 requests. All but one of those cases were discretionary, meaning the Supreme Court did not have to hear them, but at least four justices in the right-wing faction that now dominates the court handpicked them in order to issue decisions about abortion, religion, guns and the government’s ability to mitigate climate change.

This was all part of the Christian right’s plan: Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Denise Burke told attendees at the 2018 Evangelicals for Life conference, “We’re basically baiting [the pro-choice movement]; come on, fight us on turf that we have already set up and established…. [O]nce we get these first-trimester limitations in place, we’re going to go for a complete ban on abortion, except to save the life of the mother” — that is, with no exception for rape or incest.

Not all of Alliance’s funders are known. But we do know that the Charles Koch Institute gave the group $275,000 in 2020, and the dark money group shares its “senior appellate counsel,” Erin Hawley — wife of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) — with the Koch-funded Independent Women’s Forum. The Forum and its 501(c)(4) Independent Women’s Voice collectively received more than $5 million since 2014 from far right lawyer Leo’s network. Meanwhile, Erin Hawley has been prolific in her opposition to reproductive rights both federally and in the states. She helped coordinate and even write the amicus briefs supporting the abortion ban in Dobbs.

Students for Life, the group that held the secret training for legislators, has Leo as co-chair of its board and has led the charge in promoting extreme anti-abortion bills in state legislatures. Students for Life has taken credit for authoring and introducing 27 bills in 19 states in the last two legislative sessions, including its signature “Life at Conception” bill already passed in Oklahoma and Arkansas, which bans abortions even in cases of rape or incest. (Students for Life is vehemently opposed to exceptions in cases of rape and has openly claimed that abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of the parent, despite ample scientific evidence to the contrary.)

The group has also introduced bills in state legislatures that include “heartbeat” bans prohibiting abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, and bans and restrictions on abortion pills (signed into law or pending in the legislatures of 13 states). Texas Gov. Greg Abbott invited Students for Life representatives to the bill signing ceremony for Senate Bill 8, the “heartbeat” bill that deputizes ordinary citizens to turn in their neighbors for receiving abortions for a reward. After the ceremony, Students for Life wrote that they would lobby Texas to go further than the six-week ban.

This legislative push is part of the Post-Roe Blueprint crafted by Students for Life Action, the organization’s 501(c)(4) arm. The blueprint (co-signed by Concerned Women for America’s CEO and representatives of other big anti-abortion groups) is a six-step plan meant to ensure Roe’s reversal leads to a blanket ban on abortion without exceptions for rape or incest in all corners of the country. Students for Life leader Kristan Hawkins announced at the 2022 National Pro-Life Summit that the group’s “ultimate goal is a constitutional amendment barring abortion throughout America.”

Students for Life’s revenue has ballooned by millions of dollars in recent years: Its “action” arm grew eight times larger between 2019 and 2021. It keeps its donors secret, but public records show that some funding has come from the pass-through DonorsTrust, known as the “dark money ATM” of the right, which has passed enormous sums to Students for Life Board Chairman Leo’s network.

Alongside swelling revenue and an increased focus on lobbying, Students for Life has conducted polling on abortion the results of which they’ve seemingly misrepresented, including by portraying most millennial and Gen Z respondents as supporting abortion bans when over 90 percent of those polled actually oppose Students for Life’s position that abortion should be banned without exception.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a group founded to “pursue policies that will ultimately end abortion,” has also seen a funding surge to push anti-abortion legislation through the states. In the 2021-2022 election cycle, SBA Pro-Life America pledged to spend $78 million. The group boasted of testifying 23 times in state legislatures in 2021, and it employs at least 12 active state lobbyists. SBA Pro-Life America’s “state policy director” personally lobbied for a Missouri bill signed into law in 2019 that bans abortion at eight weeks and criminalizes doctors.

The organization has received significant funding from dark money groups closely linked to Leo — the Judicial Crisis Network, The 85 Fund, Wellspring Committee and America Engaged. It gave Leo the “Distinguished Leader Award” at its 2017 annual gala “for [his] work on confirming Justice Gorsuch.”

SBA Pro-Life America’s leader, Marjorie Dannenfelser, admitted to PBS News Hour that the group’s work to pack the Supreme Court with anti-choice justices was a necessary prerequisite for their lobbying in state legislatures: “The strategy worked,” she boasted.

Leo Groups Back Anti-Choice Candidates

But it is not enough for dark money groups to author extreme anti-abortion bills: A majority of state legislators have to vote for them. Part of the right’s long-term strategy has been to ensure more right-wing candidates enter state legislative races — and win.

A key tool at their disposal has been the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a national “527” electoral group. RSLC has been active in state legislative elections since 2002, but its electoral activity swelled in 2010 when it launched the Redistricting Majority Project, which helped flip nearly 1,000 legislative seats across the U.S. The Redistricting Project’s goal was to capture state legislatures in order to control the redistricting process. The GOP used that power to create the most extreme partisan election maps in modern history, helping them to lock in majorities in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin even when they represent a minority of voters statewide.

Those GOP-captured state legislatures have launched attacks on abortion rights in their states. In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers knocked down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s bid to repeal the state’s dormant 1849 abortion ban two days before Roe was overturned — the GOP Senate gaveled in and out in 14 seconds to kill the proposal. In North Carolina, the gerrymandered GOP legislature has tried repeatedly to pass abortion bans that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed.

In the first quarter of 2022, RSLC and its affiliated State Government Leadership Foundation announced a historic fundraising haul ahead of the midterms. RSLC’s major funders include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the tobacco industry and some of the world’s largest corporations, including Koch Industries. Leo’s Concord Fund (the formal legal name of Judicial Crisis Network) is another top RSLC donor. Concord has transferred more than $6 million to RSLC from 2012 to 2020 — and was its biggest funder in 2018.

Leo’s 85 Fund, a Judicial Crisis Network-allied 501(c)(3) formerly known as the Judicial Education Project, has used the legal alias “Honest Elections Project” since 2020 to push severe voter suppression measures in the states, even hosting voter suppression academies for state lawmakers and developing model legislation to attack voting rights.

That means that Leo’s network wields its anonymous donations in a multi-pronged attack: Its nonprofit “advocacy” groups author anti-abortion legislation, while its electoral groups fund legislators who vote for that legislation and suppress the vote in order to lock in their partisan structural advantage.

Despite claims by anti-choice activists that overturning Roe allows people to make localized decision about abortion, the same dark money organizations that attacked Roe nationally — with the backing of a few ultrawealthy anonymous donors — are pushing anti-choice bills, supporting anti-choice candidates, and attacking state-level efforts to expand and codify abortion access in individual states.

Meanwhile, the far right is working to criminalize traveling out of state for abortion, punish the individuals who help secure abortions in states where it is lawful (audaciously calling this necessary travel “abortion tourism”), and ban access nationwide to chemical alternatives to surgical abortion. The leaders of groups like the dark money funded Students for Life have even attacked the availability of birth control pills and IUDs, basic contraceptives used by millions of Americans, taking the position that devices and pills that can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg are so-called “abortifacients.”

The Supreme Court’s decision destroyed constitutional protections for millions of Americans to make the most intimate and personal decisions about their health, their dreams, and if and when to start or grow their family. But perhaps it will also spark a new coalition built to fight back against the forces distorting our political system and eliminating our freedoms.

Lisa Graves, True North’s executive director, contributed to this report.