Steve Edreff/shutterstock
Steve Edreff/shutterstock

With a clearly sympathetic Supreme Court allowing Texas’ draconian abortion law SB8 to stand, at least for now, and with several other highly restrictive abortion laws advancing around the country, extremists who have spent a half-century working to outlaw or otherwise cut off access to abortion care seem on the brink of victory.

The near-total end of abortion access for poor and middle-class people in Texas, restricted access in many other states, and the possible impending death of Roe v. Wade invites several difficult questions: How did we get here, and what role did philanthropy play? What steps and missteps did funders make along this path? And what can philanthropy—including the swath of philanthropy that values reproductive choice as a human right—do to start correcting the situation?

These questions originally arose during reporting for our recent article on how funding is moving in Texas in response to SB8. Since our initial conversations with Texas abortion funds, advocates, and others, we’ve taken a broader look at this issue, looking at the history of abortion philanthropy and talking to more key players, including two leading abortion-rights grantmakers. What we found is that, even aside from the usual ill-advised restrictions grantmakers place on nonprofits across the board, pro-abortion-rights philanthropy seriously needs to up its game.

“There’s a lot of work that philanthropy needs to do to be a better partner in this work around reproductive freedom,” said Nan Kirkpatrick, the development director for Jane’s Due Process, an abortion fund serving underage Texans.

In particular, people in the field said that philanthropy has fallen short in its support for abortion access, local and state work, and critical judicial battles. Funders have also not always recognized what a central and intersectional human rights issue abortion is, and have generally just not written enough, or big enough, checks for the movement.

Mixed messages from funders—and a silence that’s not so golden 

The fact that it was impossible to secure an interview with representatives of what is almost certainly the country’s biggest foundation backer of abortion rights and access is perhaps telling of a larger issue within the field.

As IP reported in 2020, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation moved toward anonymous support for abortion rights in the early 2000s after one of Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries, Pampered Chef, was threatened with a boycott by anti-abortion extremists. While STBF is an unquestioned leader in the field, moving around $1.5 billion to reproductive health funding and $344 million to abortion alone from 2003 to 2018, according to tax filings, you’d never know it from looking at the funder’s website. STBF also doesn’t talk to the press. We know, as we’ve tried several times, now.

To some extent, it’s understandable that a donor would be guarded about its support for abortion rights, given the zealotry and violent tactics of opponents. At the same time, the right is well aware of STBF’s support for abortion rights and access, in spite of its efforts to stay in the background. And considering the foundation is such a champion in the field, its voice is notably missing in this debate. STBF’s silence wouldn’t be such a concern were it not for the fact that spending patterns among reproductive rights funders overall seem to send a similar mixed message.

In 2020, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy reported that only 20% of the $912 million in foundation funding from 2015 to 2019 for reproductive rights issues was explicitly earmarked for abortion rights and services. Less than 3% was moved to abortion funds, which actually help women access abortion care, doing the hard work of helping poor and middle-income people overcome the legal, financial and other logistical hurdles that frequently stand between them and needed care.

The anonymity of such a huge supporter of the field—and the overall lack of direct funding for abortion rights, services and access—convey a kind of timidity and restraint among those funding the cause, especially considering how vocal, public and omnipresent so many abortion rights opponents are.

When it comes to the shortage of direct funding for abortion access and abortion funds, Jill E. Adams, the executive director of If/When/How, a national legal organization advocating for reproductive justice, told IP she believes the divide isn’t the responsibility of funders alone. Funders and grantees “cue off each other,” she said, and in doing so, both reinforce the focus on advocacy over access.

“For such a long time, an inordinate amount of attention, and effort and resources, has gone toward securing and protecting the legal right to abortion and not enough to ensuring that everyone, irrespective of income level, insurance source or geography can meaningfully exercise those rights,” she said.

Rather than acting out of malintent, National Network of Abortion Funds Executive Director Yamani Hernandez said they believe funders may be overwhelmed by the scope of the issue. (Hernandez prefers using gender-neutral pronouns.) “The perception is that the problem is so huge that the only solution is a policy solution,” they said.

But in the absence of a policy solution, Hernandez said, “We have enough wealth within the philanthropic community to actually fund abortion today, and help people get to the care that they need. It’s not an either-or situation.”

Another way to put this, as Packard Foundation’s Tamara Kreinin explained it, is that foundations are often moving money to the world as they think it should be, rather than as it is.

“I think one reason some philanthropies spend more on advocacy is they believe government should be paying for the services,” said Kreinin, director of the foundation’s reproductive health program. That includes, ideally, scientifically based, comprehensive sex education and abortion access within a mile of every patient’s home.

But even with those caveats aside, funders seem to be sending a mixed message: We support your right to an abortion—but when you need actual abortion care, you’re on your own.

“Too small a pool” of funds and funders

Other issues frequently raised included a lack of funders overall, a focus on national vs. state and local organizations, and the ever-shifting whims of the funder community.

The lack of funds is particularly glaring in a political environment where, as we have previously reported, anti-reproductive-rights funders regularly channel tens of millions into a multi-prong strategy that includes supporting organizations designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, fighting court battles, and engaging in state-level organizing.

Even funders themselves have begun realizing they may have been mistaken in favoring national organizations over state-based groups, Kreinin said. But part of this either-or problem is really just a result of insufficient funds. “I think what’s maybe most important is to step back and say, wait a minute, we just don’t have enough money—full stop,” she said.

This lack of resources has caused abortion rights organizations to fight among themselves instead of being able to direct their entire focus on fighting extremists and supporting people in need. “I think the fighting for resources, both at the state and local level, and at the national level, causes the community to fight amongst themselves and to frankly just be exhausted and bedraggled,” she said.

Adams from If/When/How told IP that in addition to dollar amounts, there aren’t enough funders supporting reproductive equity on both the foundation and corporate fronts. “It’s too small a pool, for starters,” she said.

Nonprofits working to advance reproductive equity are also, like organizations in other areas that depend on foundation support, subject to the changing tides at those organizations. For example, Open Society Foundations recently told Plan C, an organization that provides state-by-state information for people seeking self-managed medication abortions, that they will be losing OSF’s grant support as part of the funder’s sweeping restructuring that’s underway.

Even before losing OSF funding, though, Plan C co-Director Francine Coeytaux said that the FDA’s politically motivated restrictions on medication abortion had already made her organization a difficult sell to foundations.

“People have felt like they could not fund us because we were pushing an agenda that was really coming up against the fact that these pills are FDA approved, but they have been restricted politically by the FDA for over 20 years,” she said. Last month, Texas also effectively banned self-managed abortion with SB4, which forbids practitioners from prescribing the pills at seven weeks of pregnancy and from sending the medication by mail.

When it comes to corporate support of abortion rights, Texas provides a perfect example of companies offering too little and too late. In response to SB8, some corporations vowed to set up their own abortion funds, pay for employees to leave the state for abortion care, or even to help employees relocate away from Texas altogether. Other companies signed a letter opposing the law. All of this makes you wonder where these corporate leaders were when other companies were bankrolling the far-right legislators that got us to this point—AT&T alone threw more than $300,000 into the coffers of extremist Texas lawmakers.

Another issue, sources said, is that the biggest fish in the small pool of pro-abortion-rights foundations direct most of their resources to national organizations.

“It is definitely true that especially larger national foundations have, for the most part, funded national projects,” said Kirkpatrick of Jane’s Due Process. The emphasis on funding national organizations has happened despite the fact, Kirkpatrick said, that “when it comes to actually helping people access services and access abortion on the ground, it’s always a local project,” calling regional and state-based work “the front lines” of the fight for abortion rights and access.

Aimee Arrambide, executive director of Texas pro-choice advocacy organization Avow, told IP she thinks there has been a “heavy investment in national and federal-based work to the detriment of the states,” when a both/and strategy supporting the fight in both national and state-by-state arenas is what’s called for.

Kreinin from Packard agreed on the importance of funding both national and smaller pro-abortion organizations on the state and local level. “But/and I do believe, broadly, as a funding community, we have been remiss—and we’re starting to shift—in not deeply investing in states,” she said.

Finally, a significant part of the problem is a lack of steady, long-term support for the issue. Packard’s Kreinin called out philanthropy’s overall short attention span as a particular issue when it comes to the fight for abortion rights.

“Funders historically go to the flavor of the moment,” she told IP. “They historically do something for three years, and they want the next big idea.”

A mainstream issue, marginalized

Another hurdle is that abortion has been framed as something of a niche issue, overlooking the vast numbers who are impacted by it, and how closely related abortion access is to several other issues of health, equity, and racial and economic justice.

While abortion rates in America have actually declined as access to contraception has increased, it is still a very common medical procedure—a 2017 study found nearly 1 in 4 women will have an abortion by age 45. Nearly half of Americans who choose to have an abortion live below the federal poverty level. Restrictive abortion laws create a range of negative consequences, including increased poverty and even incarceration. Meanwhile, anti-abortion forces support issues well beyond abortion, including Republican efforts to restrict voting rights.

So it’s hard to understand why every funder that works to alleviate poverty, promote democracy, improve health outcomes, reform the criminal justice system, or improve children’s lives isn’t also writing hefty checks to support abortion rights and access.

“I do think people are starting to understand that… this work has been treated as sort of like its own little corner of the universe,” Kirkpatrick said, “and it’s treated as something that’s not really tied to everybody else’s fundamental rights. But in reality, it is one of the fundamental human rights.”

More than one person I spoke with made the point that abortion is part of a large range of intersecting issues that impact individuals and families. Starr Britt, director of development for Texas’ Afiya Center, told IP that her organization’s HIV work remains underfunded even as resources sometimes pour into Afiya’s abortion work.

“We don’t have the luxury as Black women to live separate-issue lives,” she said. “The majority of our callers that call to get abortion services are suffering from homelessness,” or are otherwise plagued with economic issues.

Or, as the groundbreaking Black activist and co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective Loretta Ross has said, reproductive justice is “the right to have a child, the right to not have a child and the right to raise your children.”

By contrast, the conservative movement has made abortion a centerpiece of its political organizing, pouring resources into the cause over several decades. Historian Randall Ballmer points out that the religious right first seized on abortion as a “rallying cry” in the late 1970s, years after Roe was decided, recognizing it as a more galvanizing cause than its main priority of protecting school segregation. Last year, the author Katherine Stewart traced all of the ways the Christian right uses abortion to elect politicians that are anti-worker, anti-environment, anti-tax, and dedicated to ending what’s left of the social safety net.

Meanwhile, pro-abortion-rights forces have been fighting an uphill battle—and the funders behind them, while well-meaning, have often misunderstood the pervasiveness of the threat and the link between abortion rights and everything from children’s welfare and environmental protection to the attack on the middle class.

Losing on the legal battlefield

The courts are one area where the lack of funder attention has made a huge, negative impact on abortion and other rights. IP readers are no doubt familiar with the prolonged right-wing takeover of U.S. courts. The previous Republican administration’s ability to put three justices on the Supreme Court is almost certainly the reason that Texas’ SB8 is still on the books.

The conservative capture of U.S. courts is a project nearly 40 years in the making. Meanwhile, progressive groups, including pro-abortion-rights organizations, are playing catch-up, and are severely underfunded by comparison.

Alliance for Justice, a national association of 120 progressive organizations focused in part on judicial nominations, reported $13.8 million in total assets in 2019. The American Constitution Society, founded just 20 years ago in part to “nurture the next generation of progressive lawyers, judges” and other legal professionals, reported $6.2 million in total assets in 2019.

Another player working in opposition to this takeover is People’s Parity Project, which was founded in 2018 by students at Harvard Law School. You can read more about the group at our sister site Blue Tent, which recommended it as a “high priority” for progressive donors. No funding information is available on the organization.

Even if People’s Parity turned out to be amply funded, the treasuries of these three groups combined likely fall short of the funding amassed by the conservative Federalist Society alone, which reported total assets of $31.6 million in 2019.

Reason for hope, “decades and generations” away

While the climate for abortion rights in the U.S. is currently dark, the experts we consulted did hold out reason for optimism that the pro-equity philanthropshere is starting to see some of the errors of its ways—and adapting to our current landscape.

For one, funders are starting to wake up to the fact that it’s impossible to separate abortion rights from other rights, including voting rights, that are also under threat.

By putting a “bounty on women’s heads,” Texas has caused people who haven’t been active in the fight for abortion access to become concerned about what the current proposed waves of anti-choice laws means for their own issues, said Margaret Hempel, executive director of the Collaborative for Gender + Reproductive Equity. The Packard Foundation is a founding sponsor of CGRE, a pro-choice funding collaborative that supports national efforts in addition to state-based work in Georgia, New Mexico, Michigan and Texas to advance gender equity and reproductive health.

In addition to waking up to the importance of funding state work, Hempel said, “I do believe that people who have not worked on reproductive justice are now understanding those attacks as a broader attack on democracy.”

Kirkpatrick of Jane’s Due Process agreed. “I think that people are starting to realize that these fights are all intertwined together, and that we can’t just fight on a single front, but we have to be in solidarity with each other,” Kirkpatrick said.

But even if funding starts pouring in to the necessary combination of political advocacy, public education, state-based work, judicial advocacy and culture-shift efforts that need to occur to preserve and expand abortion rights and access, the movement for reproductive equity has a long row to hoe.

“The conservative takeover of the federal bench especially is going to have very long-term repercussions for any of us who care about anything,” said If/When/How’s Adams.

In addition to investing more in long-term strategies, Adams said, pro-abortion-rights funders and activists need to be patient “and know that this is going to take decades, and generations.”