Pro-Choice Foundations Shape National Abortion Debate

Earlier this year, as the U.S. Supreme Court was preparing for its most significant abortion case in a generation, a group of social scientists submitted a fifty-eight-page brief explaining why they believed key portions of Texas law HB 2, which among other things required all abortions in the state to take place in hospital-like facilities, should be struck down. The brief, which included findings on everything from the relative dangers of abortion versus child birth to the correlation between abortion barriers and postpartum depression, appears to have helped shape Justice Stephen Breyer's majority opinion in Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt, which found critical elements of HB 2 unconstitutional, Mother Jones and ProPublica report.

The court's decision was a victory for pro-choice groups, but it might not have been possible without the $200 million in funding from private donors that helped bankroll the researchers' work — funding that targeted, among other things, a 2007 ruling by the court which found that in cases of "medical and scientific uncertainty" state legislatures could have "wide discretion" to pass laws restricting abortion.

With little publicly funded research on the subject available in the United States, basic information was lacking on questions about the safety of the procedure and about what happens when a woman's reproductive options are drastically curtailed or eliminated. Into the breech stepped the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, the private foundation established by the first wife of investor Warren Buffett. Susan Buffett, who passed away in 2004, and her foundation had helped finance the development of the abortion drug RU486 in the 1990s and from 2001 to 2014 contributed more than $1.5 billion to abortion causes, including at least $427 million to Planned Parenthood and $168 million to the National Abortion Federation.

The Buffett Foundation wasn't alone. Other foundations supporting reproductive rights research, albeit on a smaller scale, have included the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the John Merck Fund, and the Educational Foundation of America. While philanthropic funding for research is unusual, Tracy Weitz, former director of the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health project at the University of California San Francisco, said that over the past ten to twelve years, there has been a "recognition in the philanthropic community that in order to make progress, either culturally or politically or in the service-delivery arena, there are research questions that we need to answer."

Indeed, over the past three years, foundation-backed research has influenced a string of policy changes — prompting, for example, the Food and Drug Administration to revise its labeling guidelines for abortion drugs, persuading the Iowa Supreme Court to uphold a telemedicine program for so-called medication abortion, and convincing the California Legislature to allow healthcare professionals besides doctors to perform first-trimester abortions. And in the wake of the Court’s 5-3 ruling in Hellerstedt, which included many references to the researchers' findings, similar laws to the one ruled unconstitutional in Texas were also toppled in Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin.

Those opposed to abortion have attempted to launch a research initiative of their own, establishing the Charlotte Lozier Institute in 2011 as a sort of counterweight to the influential Alan Guttmacher Institute and bringing researchers together with pro-life experts and advocates at conferences of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Still, abortion opponents have often viewed data and scientific evidence as beside the point. "For most people on the pro-life side of the debate, [abortion] is primarily an ethical, moral, for some a religious challenge," said Lozier Institute president Chuck Donovan.

Researchers funded by the Buffett Foundation and others, meanwhile, have mounted projects aimed at examining the impact of abortion restrictions in Georgia, Utah, Ohio, and Tennessee. "The role of research and the nature of relevant research will be different in different contexts," said Stephanie Toti, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights. "But what the court made clear is that abortion restrictions are going to be [evaluated] on an evidence-based standard. States can no longer rely on speculation about the potential benefits of [a] law." The question now, Toti added, is "what actual benefit does a regulation provide and how does that compare with the extent of the burden the law is going to impose on women."

Nina Martin. "One Megadonor Is Crippling the Pro-Life Movement – and No One Knows Who It Is." Mother Jones, ProPublica 07/14/2016.