Wendy Norris is a freelance writer from Denver, Colorado working on special assignments for RH Reality Check, including investigative research into the anti-choice movement at the state level. She is currently covering the "egg-as-person" movement for RH Reality Check. Her most recent previous article on this issue for RHRC can be found here. Other posts on this issue can be found by searching "personhood" and "egg-as-person" on our site. Recent pieces include others by Wendy, analyses by Lynn Paltrow, and this cartoon.
Wendy’s work can also be read at the public policy blog, Unbossed.com.
In just five short years, the primary movers and shakers in the absolutist anti-abortion/anti-choice movement seeking to promote the “personhood” of zygotes (the single cell that forms after a sperm fertilizes an egg) have amassed nearly $58 million in tax-deductible contributions for their cause.
Even the lead up to one of the worst economic periods in U.S. history has barely registered a blip in the group’s collective money-drawing power according to an examination of IRS and state campaign finance records conducted for RH Reality Check. Four out of the five groups are raising more cash than ever with sophisticated fundraising operations, flush investment portfolios, and robust revenue-generating activities.
This isn’t your grandma’s church bake sale by any stretch of the imagination.
American Life League
The fundraising champ among the five organizations profiled for this article is the American Life League (ALL), an ultra-conservative Catholic tax-exempt charity that describes itself as "supporting the social welfare of persons born and unborn." Its founder Judie Brown is better known as the "grandmother of the modern anti-choice movement" who popularized aggressive clinic blockades and sidewalk "counseling" tactics to harass health care providers and clinic patients beginning in the 1980s.
In 2007, the last year records are available, ALL raised a whopping $6 million — an impressive amount of money, without question, but still 17 percent less than its 2006 haul of $7.2 million, a decline mostly due to depreciation in the value of investment and asset sales that normally significantly pump up ALL’s annual income. Despite the lower total revenue, the amount of money brought in by donations alone has stayed relatively stable over the last five years ranging from $6.4 million in 2004 to $5.6 million in 2007.
To put it in context, ALL has raised a staggering $35 million since 2003. And it costs them just pennies on the dollar to raise those millions from direct mail appeals like one rather infamous letter that was addressed to "Dear Friend of God’s Preborn Babies."
The intermingling of hard line groups who share a common purpose to outlaw abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization and stem cell research puts ALL’s fundraising prowess to the test as it plows millions of dollars into attempts to challenge Roe v Wade in the states and into groups that share their agenda.
Former ALL legislative director Gualberto Garcia Jones, for example, is now heading the recently founded Colorado chapter of Personhood USA — the nonprofit, tax-exempt umbrella group driving religious conservatives latest attempt to pass a constitutional amendment in Colorado, while at the same time seeking constitutional amendments or laws to ban abortion and contraception in an estimated 16 states. Personhood USA, founded by long-time Operation Rescue activists Keith Mason and Cal Zastrow, was awarded charitable status in 2009 and has yet to file its financials.
ALL was a major backer of Personhood USA’s Jul. 17-18 "Personhood Summit" held in Las Vegas, Nev., which was tagged on to "The Revolution," a week-long series of clinic protests by the radical anti-abortion splinter group Operation Save America run by Rev. Flip Benham.
Human Life International
Another fundraising powerhouse is Human Life International, a Virginia-based organization that espouses strict Catholic orthodoxy and an odd blend of anti-Semitic and freemason conspiracy theories, according to Chip Berlet, an investigative reporter with Political Research Associates.
While its conservative Catholic ally ALL has stumbled a bit in raising funds, HLI’s ability to raise money continues to grow each year, peaking at $4.1 million in 2007. Over a five-year period, Fr. Tom Euteneuer has raised $16 million for anti-abortion and anti-contraception mission work in 87 countries.
In one of its more controversial claims to fame, HLI notes on its Web site that in Tanzania — where 5.7 percent of adults are HIV-positive — its "teen chastity outreach programs brought to national attention the United Nation’s designs to force young people to use defective condoms; HLI’s detective work resulted in the destruction of over 10 million condoms."
While not as publicly well known as other hard line activists, HLI signed on to the infamous full page newspaper ads attacking Focus on the Family founder James Dobson for not being anti-abortion enough. The ad caused such an uproar that one of its backers, Colorado Right to Life, lost its official state affiliate status.
In response to the Dobson ruckus, with the help of HLI, ALL, Benham’s Operation Rescue/Save America, conservative activist and perpetual political candidate Alan Keyes, Missionaries for the Preborn and other radicalized groups, Colorado Right to Life formed American Right to Life Action in 2007 to challenge the anti-abortion street cred of its former parent organization, National Right to Life.
After getting behind the losing 2008 Colorado personhood ballot measure (which HLI also publicly endorsed), American Right to Life Action has since petered out after bringing in about $40,000 in one year’s time. But by its Dec. 2008 post-election report to the IRS, the group organized as a federal tax law section 527 political committee claimed to have raised just 80 bucks while posting $2,000 in expenses for a loan repayment to a supporter.
Colorado Right to Life
Though its spin-off group, American Right to Life Action, seems to be on life support, Colorado Right to Life (CRTL) has raised nearly $1 million between 2004-2007 between its tax-exempt 501c4 social welfare organization and its charitable education fund.
While CRTL’s means may be modest in comparison to their peers, they’ve used their bankroll to position themselves as a major player in the "personhood" movement.
The group was a key force behind the first Colorado personhood constitutional amendment drive then-headed by political neophyte Kristi Burton, a 19-year-old student attending an online Biblical law school.
Now, veteran CRTL anti-abortion activist Leslie Hanks is co-sponsoring the 2010 Colorado personhood ballot measure with former ALL staffer and Personhood Colorado’s Garcia Jones. The two struck up a friendship in March 2005 while protesting at the Florida hospice where Terri Schiavo was resident, the brain-damaged woman at the center of a fierce right-to-die court battle that re-ignited the social conservative movement.
Hanks continues to mentor Garcia Jones in the ways of political gamesmanship. At an Aug. 5 hearing before the Colorado Title Board to determine the precise ballot language, Hanks leaped to the podium to help a befuddled Garcia Jones, a George Washington University law school grad, who was having trouble fielding questions from the Title Board members.
Life Legal Defense Foundation
Another veteran of the 2008 Colorado "personhood" fight is the Life Legal Defense Foundation, which describes its mission as "giving innocent and helpless human beings a trained and committed defense."
That and $5.2 million raised over five years can buy a lot of motions to tie up the courts over socially conservative activist causes. Like Hanks and Garcia Jones, LLDF was also involved in the Schiavo debacle and a supporter of the Colorado ballot measure.
More recently the legal team has been defending numerous cases of protesters harassing clinic staff and patients. In 2007, LLDF broke the $1.4 million mark in expenses with $554,000 paying for case costs and the remainder covering administrative outlays, more than double the acceptable ratio for nonprofit overhead.
Students for Life of America
The Arlington,Va.-based group, Students for Life of America, has seen exponential growth in its fundraising capacity and its reputation within the anti-abortion movement.
From a paltry $8,180 raised in 2004 it rocketed to total revenue of $573,000, all tax- deductible donations, just three years later. Likewise, the group is spending considerably more money organizing college campuses and hosting an annual conference.
Sounds remarkable but the numbers don’t add up.
An audit of the group’s 2007 IRS Form 990 expenditures statement is overstated by $316,220 according to the line items listed on the form. It’s impossible to validate the accuracy of the revenue figures since they are not itemized.
Despite the fuzzy math, SFLA has won the approval of the Who’s Who of the white- gloved anti-abortion movement. The Web site sports rolling endorsements by the likes of the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, U.S. Rep. and 2008 GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul and Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life — folks who haven’t schlepped a book bag or roomed in a dorm in many a moon.
But the students do have a more contemporary role model in the personhood movement’s rising star Kristi Burton. SFLA endorsed the Colorado "personhood" ballot measure while Burton was featured at a "bonus" event hosted by ALL at the Jan. 2009 SFLA annual conference in Washington, D.C.
The road ahead
The cottage industry that has been borne of the "personhood" movement is certain to grow larger in years to come. Despite the crushing 3-to-1 electoral loss for Colorado’s amendment, ALL’s communication director Katie Walker made this startling admission to the Christian newswire OneNewsNow.com about the league’s future:
The idea of personhood in this movement is really the only thing, the only option left to us, and it’s one of the best options and one of the most beautiful concepts I’ve heard in a long time, she contends. We’re very excited about it.