Long Distance Funders: The Money Behind the Endless Abortion Battles

The recent SCOTUS decision striking down Texas restrictions on abortion rights was surely greeted with cheers in those foundations that have, year after year, poured millions into ensuring access to safe abortions across the United States.

But don't be fooled: That decision is just the latest twist in what remains a long-running battle over reproductive rights that draws in many millions of dollars in philanthropic money annually from funders on both sides of this contentious issue—with no end to this giving in sight. 

In fact, it is hard to think of an area in which opposing camps of highly motivated funders have fought longer and harder—only to remain largely stalemated over many years. Pro-life forces have made big gains in advancing state laws that have restricted access to abortion in wide swaths of the country, but pro-choice forces have pushed back effectively in some places, including challenging the Texas law—with the SCOTUS decision now opening the door for extensive state-level litigation to strike down other restrictive laws.  

Here's a rundown of some of the big philanthropic players in this battle. 

Top Pro-Choice Funders

Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation

The foundation named after Warren Buffett's late wife and bankrolled by Buffet family wealth is the most important player by far in the abortion space. STBF has given tens of millions of dollars to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as well state affiliates, since 2010. The foundation gave over $35 million in 2014 alone. We don't yet have data for 2015, but we're betting that the pattern has continued, with the biggest grants going to Planned Parenthood's national infrastructure and a range of smaller ones going to state affiliates.

(Keep in mind that Planned Parenthood is a big overall provider of services for women's health, and it's impossible to know what proportion of grant dollars going to this group relate to abortion. Further confusing things is the fact that Planned Parenthood Federation of America also has a global division, and some of the grant dollars catalogued in this article may fund that work, which is unrelated to the U.S. abortion battles. The same is true of other nonprofits in this space, such as the Center for Reproductive Rights, which works globally as well as in the U.S.)

Meanwhile, STBF is the single largest funder of the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers. It’s given the group tens of millions of dollars in recent years, money which—among other things—funds training doctors to perform abortions, a skill no longer taught at most medical schools. In 2014, it gave the group $23 million to support its national telephone hotline, which NAF describes as the “only toll-free source of information about abortion and referrals to providers of quality care in the U.S. and Canada.” Other big STBF grants fund an array of pro-choice groups that are deep in the policy fights over abortion access, like NARAL and the National Women’s Law Center. 

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

The next-largest donor to the fight for reproductive health and justice is the Hewlett Foundation, which has given over $10 million to support Planned Parenthood's U.S. work since 2010. While that figure is significant, it is less than a 10th of what STBF gave. Likewise, Hewlett is a big supporter of the National Abortion Federation, though it doesn't approach the level of STBF, with grants to NAF totaling under $4 million since 2010. A range of other groups advocating for abortion rights have also received Hewlett money. They include the National Women's Law Center, Guttmacher Institute, and Center for Reproductive Rights. (Again, not all this grant money related directly to abortion.) 

Open Society Foundations

OSF is not widely associated with the reproductive rights struggle, but it makes sense that it would be, and grantmaking confirms that the Soros-backed foundation has given big at different points. In 2012, it made a $13.2 million grant to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and at least $5 million in other OSF grants have gone to that group since 2010.

That grantmaking reflects an announced $20 million investment in 2011 to be distributed over a four-year period, with the specific purpose of building centers in South and Southeast regions of the U.S. for reproductive health services. Again, bear in mind the earlier point about the many services provided by Planned Parenthood that have nothing to do with abortion. OSF has also backed various other pro-choice groups over the past five years, at smaller levels. 

David and Lucile Packard Foundation

The Packard Foundation is another longtime player in the reproductive rights space. And, through its program for Population and Reproductive Health, is another key funder of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, giving over $7 million to this group since 2011. Packard also backs the National Abortion Federation to the tune of around $2.2 million in the past few years. In addition, Packard grants fund smaller pro-choice groups such as NARAL, which has pulled in $400,000 in the past few years. The Center for Reproductive Rights, another popular group among funders, has received over $2 million in Packard money since 2011. The National Women's Law Center has also gotten steady funding. 

Ford Foundation

Ford isn't a huge player in the abortion space, but it weighs in at times, and sometimes the grants are large. For instance, it gave Planned Federation of America a $1 million grant in 2015. If you dig through Ford's grants database, you'll find various grants for U.S. pro-choice work here and there. 

JPB Foundation

JPB is a newer and less consistent player in the reproductive rights space, but it pops up now and again as a significant funder. It gave Planned Parenthood Federation of America a total of $6 million in 2012 and 2013.

Big Pro-Life Funders

On the other side of abortion battle, there are fewer heavyweight funders, and these folks tend to keep a fairly low profile. Much of the money funding pro-life initiatives is also done on the state level, so it is harder to get aggregate totals for the amounts contributed, as each state has dozens of foundations and individuals making donations. 

Additionally, funders give quite a bit of pro-life money through donor-advised funds, so it's harder to identify the grants or funders. Some of these funds also go to pro-life groups that aren't easily identified as such, like those running crisis pregnancy centers.

RelatedThe NationalChristianFoundation Is a Top Backer of Crisis Pregnancy Centers

One example of a big pro-life funder with a national focus is the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation, out of South Palm Beach, Florida, which made 10 grants totalling over $8.4 million to Americans United for Life between 2003 and 2013. This foundation funds pro-life causes in several states across the country, including Minnesota, where it has donated over $1.5 million between 2003 and 2013 to the Human Life Alliance of Minnesota. The DeMoss Foundation is also a big funder of CRU, the campus Crusade for Christ, which is one of the largest fundamentalist Christian organizations operating on college campuses across the country.

Another foundation heavily invested in right-to-life organizations is the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust out of Washington State, which donated a total of $715,000 to Americans United for Life between 2006 and 2015. 

One other national funder worth noting is the Chiaroscuro Foundation, bankrolled by the hedge funder Sean Fieler. 

Related:Sean Fieler's Philanthropy: The Hedge Funder Who Promotes Conservative Values  

Many donors to right-to-life causes focus their giving within their own states. For example, Michigan Right to Life has received substantial funding from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation—a total of $1.1 million between 2003 and 2011, and another $250,000 from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation in recent years. Another local Michigan funder of pro-choice causes is the Edwin J. and Ruth M. Shoemaker Foundation, which donated $550,000 to Right to Life Michigan between 2007 and 2014.

In Texas, the Thirteen Foundation, run by Farris and JoAnn Wilks, contributed $160,000 in 2012 to the Texas Right to Life Committee Educational Fund. We've written about Farris Wilks and the funding of "Crisis Pregnancy Centers," a strategy used by the pro-life movement to detour women away from the full spectrum of contraceptive choices. 

RelatedFarris Wilks: The Pro-Life Fracking Billionaire Bankrolling "Crisis Pregnancy Centers"

Also contributing to the Texas Right to Life Committee Educational Fund repeatedly and consistently is the Greater Houston Community Foundation, which donated a total of $19,000 between 2007 and 2013 to the fund. Many community foundations across the country support local right-to-life causes, including the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which donated a total of $11,700 between 2007 and 2014 to the National Right to Life Educational Committee Educational Trust Fund. 

Also in Texas, the Shell Oil Company Foundation is a small but steady supporter of pro-life causes, making eight donations totalling $2,000 between 2013 and 2014 to the Texas Right to Life Committee Educational Fund. The Shell Oil Company Foundation also made a largely symbolic contribution of $200 to the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund in Washington, D.C., in 2014.