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Follow the Money Behind Anti-Abortion Laws

As the Supreme Court considers the future of abortion rights, anti-abortion lawmakers are getting corporate campaign dollars, writes Brennan Center Fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

Your favor­ite brands may well be fund­ing lawmakers who wish to limit women’s repro­duct­ive rights. This issue has gained urgency as the Supreme Court considers abor­tion rights in a case called June Medical Services. Shortly before clos­ing for COVID-19, the Supreme Court heard oral argu­ments in this case chal­len­ging a Louisi­ana law that seeks to limit access to abor­tion in the state. Lawmakers in other predom­in­antly red states have proposed similar meas­ures that would restrict access to or elim­in­ate abor­tion, such as Targeted Regu­la­tion of Abor­tion Provider (TRAP) laws and “heart­beat laws.” And many of these lawmakers receive campaign dona­tions from name-brand corpor­a­tions.

The case, June Medical Services v. Russo, is eerily similar to one out of Texas that reviewed two aspects of a TRAP law, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. In that 2016 decision, the Supreme Court found that a rule requir­ing abor­tion providers to have admit­ting priv­ileges in hospit­als was uncon­sti­tu­tional and created an undue burden on a woman’s right to access abor­tion care. Mean­while, the Louisi­ana law under review in June Medical Services (known as Act 620) simil­arly involves a require­ment for abor­tion providers to have hospital admit­ting priv­ileges.

If the Supreme Court respects its own preced­ents, it should strike down the Louisi­ana law. However, pro-choice advoc­ates are nervous that the Court will not only over­rule Whole Woman’s Health, but that if it rules broadly enough, it will strike down parts of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parent­hood v. Casey, which estab­lished abor­tion rights under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amend­ment.

Louisi­ana’s Act 620 is just one of many anti-abor­tion stat­utes that has been enacted in the last few years. In Decem­ber 2019, Axios iden­ti­fied eight differ­ent states, includ­ing Louisi­ana, that enacted abor­tion restric­tions that year. Most of these are so-called “heart­beat laws” that limit abor­tion to very early in preg­nancy — so early, crit­ics point out, that many women would not even know they were preg­nant. (The Guttmacher Insti­tute has published a compre­hens­ive list of abor­tion restric­tions.)

Where do these restrict­ive laws come from? They are intro­duced in state legis­latures and, if passed, are signed into law by governors. But who is putting up the money to elect these state lawmakers?

The answer is complic­ated. Campaign finance rules for candid­ates in federal elec­tions are differ­ent than those for state elec­tions. Corpor­a­tions are banned from contrib­ut­ing to federal candid­ates under the 1907 Till­man Act.

Mean­while, each of the 50 states has its own campaign finance laws, and in roughly half of the states, corpor­a­tions are allowed to donate to state candid­ates.

For example, the Louisi­ana law at issue in June Medical Services  was intro­duced by 51 state repres­ent­at­ives and five state senat­ors, includ­ing State Rep. Katrina Jack­son (D) and State Sen. Almond Gaston “A.G.” Crowe (R), who were the bill’s lead spon­sors. Accord­ing to the National Insti­tute on Money in Polit­ics, many of Jack­son’s top polit­ical donors are corpor­a­tions, includ­ing publicly-traded compan­ies. Crowe, the main Senate spon­sor, had over­lap­ping corpor­ate donors with Jack­son, includ­ing AT&T, Entergy, Exxon Mobil. In other words, these donors are using corpor­ate funds to support anti-abor­tion lawmakers — many of whom are signat­or­ies to a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the law being chal­lenged at the Supreme Court in June Medical Services.

During my research for this piece, Ultra­vi­olet, an advocacy group that focuses on ending sexism, shared data about elec­tion spend­ing in Louisi­ana in 2019 that it gathered with the help of Sustain­able Invest­ments Insti­tute (Si2), a nonprofit focused on corpor­ate governance issues. By their count, publicly traded compan­ies contrib­uted more than $400,000 to anti-choice candid­ates — both Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans — in Louisi­ana during the 2019 elec­tion. Louisi­ana elects its state govern­ment in off years. (The next elec­tion is in 2023.)

Other corpor­a­tions that contrib­uted to anti-abor­tion candid­ates in Louisi­ana in 2019 include retail­ers and Walmart; commu­nic­a­tions and tech­no­logy compan­ies CBS, CenturyLink, Comcast, Disney, Face­book, Honey­well, Microsoft, Sprint, and Veri­zon Commu­nic­a­tions; food compan­ies Archer Daniels Midland and Coca-Cola; health­care and insur­ance compan­ies AFLAC, Amgen, Anthem, Bris­tol-Myers Squibb, Centene, CIGNA, DaVita, Eli Lilly, Health­Care Part­ners, John­son & John­son, HCA Health­care, Humana, Pfizer, United­Health Group, and WellCare Health Plans; energy compan­ies Amer­ican Elec­tric Power, Chev­ron, Cono­co­Phil­lips, Hallibur­ton, Mara­thon Petro­leum, Occi­dental Petro­leum, and Phil­lips 66; trans­port­a­tion compan­ies Deere, General Motors, and South­w­est Airlines; banks Capital One Finan­cial and Citig­roup; and a casino company, Las Vegas Sands.  

Some may argue that these compan­ies did not know about these candid­ates’ stances on abor­tion. But that seems less likely with the 2019 elec­tion cycle in Louisi­ana, during which Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) signed a heart­beat bill into law banning abor­tion after six weeks of preg­nancy on May 30, 2019. The heart­beat bill passed in the House with a 79­–23 vote and the Senate with a 31–5 vote in May as well, thus putting donors on notice about where he and many state legis­lat­ors stood on the issue of repro­duct­ive freedoms by the Novem­ber 2019 elec­tion. (Fortu­nately, a federal judge has put this six-week restric­tion on hold.)

This whole story from Louisi­ana is a micro­cosm of how corpor­ate money can impact elec­tions, and by exten­sion the fate of consti­tu­tional rights and indi­vidual liber­ties. Did AT&T or any of these other corpor­ate polit­ical donors want women’s repro­duct­ive rights curtailed? Hope­fully not. But when giving money to politi­cians, corpor­a­tions are in for a penny, in for pound.

If the Supreme Court limits women’s right to abor­tion in the June Medical Services case, it’s worth remem­ber­ing that these laws don’t spring out of nowhere. Lawmakers with elec­tion coffers full of corpor­ate money wrote these laws to limit women’s repro­duct­ive choices.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.