The “Independent” Women Who Oppose Women’s Rights to Make Independent Choices About Abortion
By Ansev Demirhan, Evan Vorpahl, and Alyssa Bowen
January 22 marks 49 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on Roe v. Wade, which recognized the fundamental right of women to decide if, when, how, and with whom they start or grow a family.
The immediate result of the Roe decision was to decriminalize abortion – barring state governments from punishing women and doctors – and allow women access to safe and legal abortion care. The decision overruled dozens of state laws passed by male-dominated legislatures that made it a crime to have or help obtain an abortion (and which also tried to block women’s access to contraceptives).
Although the ruling is grounded in the constitutional right to privacy that the Court previously recognized when it overturned bans on access to contraceptives, Roe has played an instrumental role in women’s equality, especially for women of color, rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
But now, this legal precedent may be overturned by a new faction of the U.S. Supreme Court that was hand-picked for opposition to a woman’s right to choose. This would undo the rights of all American women and also undo part of the legacy of Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued Roe and a great “champion of feminism” who passed away last month.
In December, the Roberts Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case challenging a 2018 Mississippi law banning abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy. Six of the nine justices – including three controversial judges installed by Donald Trump from a slate chosen by anti-Roe leaders Leonard Leo and Don McGahn – appear eager to rule in favor of the state of Mississippi. The coming decision is expected to reverse the protections for women’s access to abortion services guaranteed by Roe in 1973, as modified by Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. (In all, 22 states have laws on the books that are new or were never repealed that will ban or restrict women’s reproductive rights if these legal precedents are overturned.)
The attack on these rights does not reflect the will of the majority of people in the U.S. Abortion rights are widely popular across the political spectrum. Fully 75 percent of Americans surveyed think that the decision should be between a woman and her doctor, not mandated by law. Only 27% of Americans support overturning Roe.
As Ellie Langford and Ilyse Hogue detailed in their book, The Lie That Binds, the assault on women’s reproductive rights is the product of a small and well-funded minority effort, led primarily by right-wing groups whose leaders and followers are trying to impose their religious views on others. Some of these anti-choice group leaders—and their funders—have manipulated our judicial system through helping to pack the Court to get Roe reversed.
The Women’s Groups Playing an Outsized Role in Undermining Women’s Rights
Some of the groups whose leaders have helped attack women’s equality and reproductive rights are well known, but others are not. One example of the latter is the Koch-funded duo that call themselves the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) and Independent Women’s Voice (IWV).
These groups officially do not to have a position on abortion, but IWV has deployed their resources to aid anti-choice candidates and ran robocalls backing GOP candidates seeking to bar abortions for women who have been raped. Many of IWF/V’s leading staffers or fellows vocally oppose reproductive rights. IWF/V’s most prominent fellow, Erin Hawley – who has been at the forefront of legal efforts supporting the Dobbs case – has promoted overturning Roe in no uncertain terms.
IWF was first launched to secure the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court despite evidence he sexually harassed Anita Hill (though he denied it).
IWF/V also played a key role in pushing for the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, after they were nominated by Donald Trump. He promised right-wing evangelical and Catholic group leaders that he would appoint judges opposed to Roe to secure their political support – as detailed in Robert O’Harrow’s Washington Post Magazine piece, “God, Trump and the Closed Door World of a Major Conservative Group, about the Council on National Policy. Notably, some of the big money that IWF/V have received has also come from groups tied to dark-money deployer and anti-choice zealot Leonard Leo, which is detailed further below.
We will not know until later this year whether they will succeed in limiting the rights of other women to control their destinies. But the well-oiled right-wing machine, lubricated with dark money, is unlikely to stop until Roe is overturned both federally and in the states.
Independent Women’s Law Center: A Dark Money Amicus Brief Machine with Anti-Abortion Ties
In late 2019, IWF launched its litigation arm, the Independent Women’s Legal Center (IWLC), which regularly files briefs, including in cases before the Supreme Court.
IWLC has received assistance from American Juris Link (AJL), a right-wing legal center “incubated” by the Koch-funded State Policy Network that organizes and coordinates legal strategies and amici. AJL received $220K from Charles Koch’s groups in 2020.
IWLC did not file a brief in the Dobbs case, but its legal fellow Erin Hawley has repeatedly attacked Roe. She is also senior appellate counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ hate group that has worked closely with Dobbs in coordinating amicus brief support in the state’s challenge to Roe. (She is married to Sen. Josh Hawley.)
A bio for Erin Hawley in the evangelical magazine World used to explain that ADF oversaw the coordination of amicus briefs in support of Dobbs, the named party for the state of Mississippi. Since October 2021, Hawley has authored six opinion pieces on Dobbs for World. (Months prior, World’s board created a right-wing opinion section on the magazine’s website, leading to the resignation of the organization’s long-time editor as well as other journalists who objected to the partisan turn toward Trumpism.)
Hawley has highlighted the fact that the Court had no reason to hear the Dobbs case, given that it was on the docket for a year and the lower courts were in agreement that the state law violated Roe and Casey. She contended that the Court's decision to hear the case signified the justices’ willingness to overturn those legal precedents.
In the days leading up to the oral argument, she gave interviews and pointed to Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment as the catalyst for the Supreme Court’s decision to finally hear Dobbs. Hawley said: “... you have to have four votes at the Supreme Court to grant cert, or in order to hear a case. So presumably she [Justice Barrett] made a difference.”
In her media appearances Hawley made numerous misleading or astonishing claims about Roe and reproductive rights, including:
Calling for justices to ignore precedent while falsely claiming that “almost no constitutional scholar thinks it was rightly decided” and asserting that “Roe… has profoundly damaged this country and its democratic processes.”
Promoting false claims that a fetus, which she refers to as a “baby,” can feel pain and smile, even though reputable science has shown otherwise in the first months of a pregnancy. That broad claim was made in a recent interview with “Washington Watch,” a show hosted by Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, another anti-LGBTQ hate group, and a member of the Council for National Policy.
Contending that for abortion to be protected by the Fourteenth Amendment there would need to be “a deeply rooted tradition of abortion in this country,” but that’s not what the right to “equal protection of the laws” requires. Hawley argued that in 1868, when that amendment was ratified, 30 of 37 states had restrictions on abortion.
Many of those states also barred women from owning property, serving on juries, or practicing law. It is plainly ridiculous to claim that 21st century America and American courts are bound to treat Americans today by the views of men who lived more than 150 years ago. Fortunately, the legal guarantee those men enshrined in the Constitution is broader than the narrow minds and limited experiences of the men who wrote it.
At the time of the founding of the United States in 1776, (white) women could legally obtain an abortion. It was not until the 1860s that some influential men argued against abortion (for white women) to promote post-Civil War population growth, and they secured laws outlawing it in that period. That is, abortion was not criminalized for almost the first century of American history.
Hawley has also emphasized that there is some sort of Christian moral obligation to deny women this reproductive right in the United States. With the use of biblical excerpts, Hawley repeatedly prioritizes fetuses over other women’s emotional, physical, and economic well-being. She is free to make her own decisions about contraception and abortion, but why should her personal religious views be imposed on other Americans as legally binding rules?
Other IWF/V Staffers and Fellows’ Opposition to Roe
IWF stands in opposition to many policies that would help women, from claiming that the wage gap is a myth to attacking the Equal Rights Amendment and dismissing sexual assault on campus as “fear-mongering hysteria.” IWF supported Betsy DeVos’ changes that limited Title IX protections for survivors of rape and women subjected to sexual harassment on campus. IWF/V was a key player in litigation to the Supreme Court to urge that employers be able to deny women access to contraceptives like IUDs, despite women’s rights, the terms of the Affordable Care Act, and the regulations implementing that statute.
IWF/V tells others it does not to have a position on abortion, but several IWF/V staffers or fellows have argued that Republicans need to politically invest in culture war issues, including specifically on abortion. For example:
IWF staffer Carrie Sheffield used disinformation about abortion in an effort to discredit Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, accusing him of “support[ing] abortion anytime, anywhere, for any reason, paid for by taxpayers — including at the moment of birth.” (This outrageous assertion is not grounded in fact.)
Repeating the legal distortions of anti-choice groups, IWF’s Inez Stepman claimed that Roe should be overturned and implied that pro-choice activists raising awareness on the availability and safety of the abortion pill were mentally unwell.
IWF Senior Fellow and frequent Fox contributor Lisa Boothe invited Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) President Marjorie Dannenfelser on her podcast to attack Planned Parenthood. SBA is one of the biggest anti-choice groups in the country. Two of SBA’s largest funders have been the Koch-linked Center to Protect Patient Rights ($1 million in 2010) and Charles Koch’s Freedom Partners ($1.37 million between 2013 and 2017). SBA filed an amicus brief in support of Dobbs and other major cases challenging Roe, such as Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt and June Medical LLC v. Russo.
IWF’s Visiting Legal Fellow, Maya Noronha is an anti-abortion and anti-birth control advocate. She is a member of the Women Speak for Themselves, an anti-choice project of hedge fund billionaire Sean Fieler’s Chiaroscuro Institute, which was formed in opposition to rules securing women’s access to contraception under the ACA. Noronha was hired under the Trump administration’s Health and Human Services agency’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) as part of a cluster hire of former Heritage Foundation employees, as a report by Equity Forward documented. Noronha and Roger Severino, who is the Director of OCR and married to Carrie Severino who has led the Leo-tied Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), helped launch the “Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom” within the OCR. It used federal resources to help health care workers and health care corporations assert a religious right to refuse to provide lawful medical services they find objectionable, such as abortion.
IWF/V Helped Pack the Supreme Court with Anti-Choice Justices
The current judicial panel deciding Dobbs is the fruit of dark money efforts to capture the Supreme Court by packing it with people who passed Trump’s litmus test of opposing Roe and who appear to embrace Leo’s agenda of rolling back other legal precedents.
Before Justice Neil Gorsuch was appointed to the Court in 2017, IWF/V insisted he be “quietly confirmed” without “questioning how he might rule in any particular case.”
In 2018, IWF/V also went to bat for Brett Kavanaugh as he denied sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford. IWF/V staffers railed against the Stanford psychologist by calling her accusations against Kavanaugh “a publicity stunt,” claiming she “[had] a credibility problem,” and suggesting that she was “mentally fragile and unstable.”
IWF/V’s leader, Heather Higgins, even took credit for providing the talking points that helped Sen. Susan Collins vote for Kavanaugh despite Ford’s testimony and his record of hostility toward women’s reproductive rights. Notably, in 2019, a year after Kavanaugh was confirmed, Leo held a fundraiser for Collins at the $3 million mansion in Maine Leo bought on the eve of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. (As a “volunteer” for Trump, Leo did not have to file any financial disclosures about his sources of income.)
IWF/V hosted an “I Stand with Brett” event on Capitol Hill to support his confirmation, alongside JCN and with Concerned Women for America (CWA), yet another anti-LGBTQ hate group. CWA has received funding from Koch’s Freedom Partners, the Center to Protect Patient Rights, and DonorsTrust, earning the nickname “Koch-Cerned Women for America,” in a report by the Bridge Project and NARAL. CWA spent $500,000 to support the nomination of Kavanaugh and filed amicus briefs in Dobbs, Whole Woman’s Health, and June Medical.
IWF/V also rallied for Amy Coney Barrett leading up to her confirmation to the Supreme Court on the eve of the 2020 presidential election, even though they supported efforts to block President Obama’s nominee for months during the 2016 presidential election year. Barrett has a documented record of opposing Roe.
IWF/V staffers also appeared on right-wing news outlets to condemn feminists who failed to support a woman Supreme Court justice nominee, even though the Center for Reproductive Rights called Barrett’s anti-reproductive rights record “the most extreme...since Judge Robert Bork.” (Senator Ted Kennedy had warned that if Bork were confirmed in 1987 America would become “a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions.”)
Repeating their Kavanaugh playbook, IWF/V staged an “I’m with Her” event for Barrett outside of the Supreme Court at the same time as the Women’s March. This was part of IWF/V’s “[broad] strategy of casting criticism of Barrett as anti-woman,” as described by The Intercept.
IWF/V’s Koch Ties
At first glance the partnership between “conservative” religious groups and more libertarian groups might seem odd. Charles Koch has claimed to be socially “liberal” and to support LGBTQ and reproductive rights, even though almost all the candidates his political operations support are anti-choice. As Lee Fang details in his book The Machine, Koch has sought to unite “social and economic conservatives” to push for his tax-cutting and anti-regulation agenda which has meant supporting vehemently anti-abortion candidates and organizations, like CWA and the Susan B. Anthony List.
IWF/V funding from Koch dates back at least to when former Koch Industries lobbyist Nancy Pfotenhauer started leading IWF in 2001. Pfotenhauer even ran IWF from the same office as Koch’s Citizens for a Sound Economy/Americans for Prosperity for years.
Pfotenhauer is far from the only IWFer with Koch organizations on their resume. As explained in a 2016 report by the Nation, more than half of IWF’s then-board members and staffers had either worked for or received funding from a Koch-linked group.
As of the end of 2021, half of IWF’s board members had Koch ties, as do well over half of their fellows, policy analysts, and administrators.
For example, IWF has been funded directly by the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) and Charles G. Koch Foundation (CGK). According to the group’s recent tax filings, IWF received $153,000 from CKI in 2020 and $100K from the CGK in 2019. It has also received significant funding from the Bradley Foundation, whose board is led by the longest-serving board member on Koch’s Americans for Prosperity: Art Pope.
Most of the funding for IWF/V, however, comes from secret sources, such as those passing money from one group tied to Leo to another. It has also been the beneficiary of funds from secret sources via DonorsTrust, the “dark money ATM” of the right.
It is worth noting though that IWV, the “voice” of these women who call themselves independent, was mostly funded by men a few years back during a brief period when their donors were disclosed.
That is both surprising and unsurprising for a group whose leader has touted how its name can deceive people while its funders know what it really is about: “Being branded as neutral, but actually having people who know know that you’re actually conservative puts us in a unique position,” Higgins told donors in 2015, as reported by the Intercept and the Center for Media and Democracy.
On the issue of abortion, it appears that IWF/V want to tell the public one thing about their position on Roe while IWV’s activities in support of anti-choice politicians and the claims of leading IWF/V staffers and fellows attacking women’s reproductive rights convey another. Whether or not IWF/V publicly celebrates a Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe, their actions have contributed to such a result, adding yet another issue to the growing list of topics where they fail to uphold the rights and freedoms of most women.
True North’s executive director, Lisa Graves, contributed to this analysis.