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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.

the_burtons/Getty
the_burtons/Getty

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 Amazon.com 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.