US groups behind bid to overturn abortion rights spent millions attacking rights around the world

A person holds an LGBTQ+ Pride flag outside the US Supreme Court

US Conservative groups seeking to overturn Roe v Wade have spent millions on global campaigns against reproductive and LGBT+ rights, an investigation has found.

OpenDemocracy says the groups have spent at least $28 million on international campaigns, including anti-abortion efforts in Poland, Colombia and El Salvador. 

The outlet scrutinised seven organisations it says have been involved in such campaigns. These include the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Federalist Society, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and Heartbeat International.

Both ADF and the Federalist Society have played crucial roles in efforts to overturn abortion rights, culminating in the current Supreme Court case seeking to uphold a Mississippi law banning abortion access after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Lawyers with the ADF have outlined their long-term strategy previously.

In 2018, speaking at the Evangelicals for Life conference, ADF senior counsel Denise Burke announced that just that week, state lawmakers in Mississippi had introduced the nation’s first-ever 15-week abortion ban. Burke stated that the move was intended to “bait” abortion rights groups, getting their challenge of the ban to the US Court of Appeals, and then to the Supreme Court.

“Once 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,” said Burke. So far, the strategy has been successful.

The Supreme Court’s three Trump-appointed justices were selected by the Federalist Society. Now, they face their first major opportunity to rewrite abortion rights.

The ADF, in particular, is involved in dozens of court cases across the world via its global arm, ADF International. The organisation was cited by the UK government in a proposal for strengthening free speech at universities. After opening its London office in 2017, it has been investing hundreds of thousands of pounds on lobbying in the UK.

Both the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and ADF have also intervened in dozens of European court cases against sexual and reproductive rights. Poland’s constitutional court voted in favour of banning abortion in cases of foetal defects. Headed up by Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, the group submitted arguments supporting the new restrictions.

OpenDemocracy also found that the groups, which are largely secretive about their funding, have received money from so-called “dark money” funds, which come from anonymous donors.

From 2016 to 2020, the seven groups have been the recipients of almost $100m via two leading US charities, National Christian Foundation (NCF) and Fidelity Charitable.

Supreme Court case could devastate abortion rights

The Supreme Court legal battle could shape the future of American politics and human rights.

On 2 December, the court heard oral arguments, with Mississipi asking the court to overrule the 1973 ruling on Roe v Wade, as well as the 1992 verdict on Planned Parenthood v Casey. Both were landmark cases, setting the legal precedent to abortion access across the states.

Overturning these cases would allow for the institution of abortion bans across the US. It is also expected to have worldwide ramifications, emboldening conservative attacks on reproductive rights.

One group involved in the case, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), has a long history of anti-abortion campaigning. Between 2007 and 2014, it spent $96m internationally, according to financial filings. Since changing status from a non-profit to a church in 2014, however, it has not been required to disclose its foreign spending. 

A further two of the groups involved in the case, the ADF and Family Research Council, are also designated as anti-LGBT+ “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the US, although they reject this label.

Republicans confident in Supreme Court abortion win

Several Republicans have tweeted their support for upholding the Missippi law and overturning the Roe v Wade decision.

Representative Ashley Hinson posted a video in which she drew on her experience as a mother in support of the 15-week ban.

“As the mum of two boys myself, I know that at 15 weeks, mums can feel their babies move, and the baby’s heart is fully developed,” Hinson said. “So this law should stand.”

Representative Randy Feenstra has described the court case, with its potential impact on reproductive rights, as “a beacon of hope for innocent life”.

Mississippi governor Tate Reeves has said he is optimistic that the court will rule in the state’s favour. Given the conservative leanings of six out of the nine Supreme Court justices, this confidence does not seem misplaced.

“The Supreme Court must take swift action to overturn this dangerous, unconstitutional state law that robs people of their right to make personal, informed healthcare decisions for themselves and their families,” said Sarah Warbelow, Legal Director at Human Rights Campaign

“We are hopeful that the Court will honour the precedent set by Roe v. Wade — enshrining abortion access as a constitutional right. Every day that this discriminatory law remains in effect there are thousands of people in Mississippi who are being denied safe, quality access to reproductive care and it is the most marginalized that are the most vulnerable, including LGBTQ+ women, transgender men and non-binary individuals.”