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People who think money is the mother’s milk of politics ought to ponder the astonishing recent success of the state’s anti-abortion lobby.

 Despite expenditures that qualify as puny among state interest groups, Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin are seeing major gains under Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a GOP-controlled Legislature. The state is now at the forefront of national efforts to make abortion and even birth control harder to get.

On July 5, Walker signed into law a bill to make women seeking abortions undergo an obstetric ultrasound, whether they want one or not, and requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. A judge has blocked enactment of this latter provision, which would have closed some clinics, a prospect cheered by Wisconsin Right to Life.

The state Assembly has passed bills to bar public employee health plans from covering abortions, exempt religious employers from having to cover contraceptives, and outlaw abortions “sought solely because of the sex of the unborn child.” The Senate is expected to take these up this fall.

Also in the hopper: a revived state constitutional amendment to define “person” in a way that critics say would make contraception illegal, and bills to prohibit the sale and use of fetal tissue and create a “Choose Life” state license plate.

In fact, virtually every item on Wisconsin Right to Life’s legislative agenda for the 2013-14 session, and the agenda for Pro-Life Wisconsin, has advanced.

These gains follow those of  2011-12, when Wisconsin ended the mandate that schools teach students about birth control and cut state funding for family planning, prompting the closure of four rural Planned Parenthood centers.

All this has happened without big lobby budgets or major outlays of campaign cash.

In the 2011-12 session, Wisconsin Right to Life reported spending $43,730 on lobbying, less than 339 other state interest groups. Pro-Life Wisconsin spent $63,113.

During the same period, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin parted with $241,309 trying to influence state officials.

On campaign cash, the differences are even starker. Political action committees run by Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin have spent about $150,000 since mid-2008 on state political campaigns.

During this period, Planned Parenthood pumped $1.3 million into the electoral process.

Moreover, the bill requiring ultrasounds and admitting privileges passed despite opposition from titans like the Wisconsin Medical Society and Wisconsin Hospital Association, which together spent $1.8 million on lobbying in 2011-12. (Medical Society lobbyist Mark Grapentine says the law serves no medical necessity and “seems to be meant to make abortions much more difficult to obtain and provide.”)

What, if not money, accounts for the anti-abortion lobby’s success?

“Two words: powerful issue,” says Matt Sande, director of legislation for Pro-Life Wisconsin. “Abortion is killing a human being, and naturally people are passionate about that. So we don’t need a ton of dollars.”

Susan Armacost, legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life, cites her group’s network of grassroots support and its diligence in educating the public, backing carefully crafted legislation that smacks of “common sense” and providing accurate information.

“We work very hard, and we think we’re good at what we do,” Armacost says. “We’ve earned the respect of people in this state.”

The other side spins it differently, noting the support that anti-abortion groups get from institutions like the Catholic church and arguing that politicians who advance the anti-abortion agenda are disregarding the will of the electorate.

A poll taken last fall found that 60 percent of state respondents thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Just 35 percent of respondents felt it should always or usually be illegal.

“Most of these pieces of legislation are wildly unpopular,” says Stephanie Wilson, spokeswoman with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. “Most people think abortion should be safe and legal.”

But right now in Wisconsin, that’s not the side that’s winning.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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7 replies on “Abortion foes: big clout, little cash”

  1. Interesting article, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the anti-abortion issue had little campaign cash attached to it.

    The Republicans have been elected for years by stitching together a variety of unrelated single-issue causes, creating coalitions that together equal at least 51% of voters.

    The Americans for Prosperity, Tea Party, Club for Growth, and all the other heavy-hitter funders who bankroll Republican elections all NEED the anti-abortion fraction to win, so of course Republicans are serving those supporters now with anti-abortion legislative actions.

    Wealthy corporate executives and wealthy Republican donors can get any kind of abortions they want, so why would they care about laws that only restrict poor people? The anti-abortion issue is just a tool they use to manipulate and motivate voters, because it ultimately allows them to quietly achieve their own pro-corporate, anti-regulation agendas.

    There’s a LOT of campaign cash behind the anti-abortion lobby, it’s just indirect and COALITION funded.

  2. I’m sure Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin would like to take credit for this success; the fact that they haven’t spent much money makes the ignorant and gullible think they must be on God’s side. However, they have a powerful friend in Americans United for Life (AUL), which has been described as “the pro-life equivalent of ALEC.” Is it a coincidence that so many states have passed, or are currently considering, a slew of nearly identical anti-choice legislation and have launched all-out attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics? Are all these things being accomplished by local grassroots organizations? Nope.

    Check out Mother Jones’ Sept-Oct 2012 issue:

    And AUL’s own website:

    1. According the article you linked to, AUL budget was $4 million dollars. For a national organization that’s very little. The article even said that $4 million is “half that of National Right to Life”. To put that in context, Planned Parenthood spent about $14 million in 2012.

      Nobody is getting rich from the pro-life movement. It does not advocate for any commercial product or service. In addition, restricting abortion places a strong financial burden on the economy. There are no financial arguments in favor of abortion restrictions.

      While the pro-life movement receives non-material support institutions like the Catholic Church, pro-choice groups have institutional supporters as well. This article mentioned the Wisconsin Medical Society and Wisconsin Hospital Association supporting pro-choice positions. Meriter Hospital supported a plan to provide late-term abortions in Madison. Pro-life groups spent limited resources fighting this, while the pro-choice groups had the support of Meriter’s legal and PR team. Yet the pro-life groups were successful.

  3. I’ve been involved in the WI pro-life movement. Most of its activities are very low cost. There are lots of committed volunteers.

    I see little evidence that money influences the outcome of “values voting”. Gay marriage, civil rights, and opposition to Vietnam are (were) issues that were need no money behind them.

    People don’t form their opinions on these issues based on ads. Politicians want money, but they want votes more. If you can get them votes, which pro-lifers can, money becomes less important.

  4. The Pro-Choice issue is uniquely difficult in political battles, for reasons that go far beyond the formally-reported campaign donations cited in this article.

    To start, anti-abortion legislation only applies to half the voting population. Men can never be so personally impacted as women are by pregnancy, so a male voter’s perspective is always at least one step removed from any legislative impact.

    Post-menopausal female voters are also safe from legislative impact.

    This means that the target population (women and girls of childbearing age) is badly outnumbered as a minority of all voters, even before differences in their personal opinions are considered.

    Furthermore, many in this target group don’t feel any motivating personal connection to the issue, because they don’t believe they’ll ever need abortion services, they aren’t aware of restrictions (ignorance/naivety/youth), or they feel wealthy and independent enough to overcome any legal obstacles if they need an abortion.

    That leaves only a small fraction of voters who might feel personally threatened by increasing restrictions on abortion access. It’s not a powerful political base.

    In my experience, it’s rare for people to altruistically champion political issues that only impact other people. Even though the majority of voters tell pollsters they favor at least some abortion rights, that doesn’t mean they will DO something to make it possible or vote based purely on this one issue.

    And on the other side, “innocent babies” are an obvious exception to my altruism rule. Babies are highly motivating for anti-abortionists, even when those “babies” are only 1 inch long, have gills and tails, and have no brain. To anti-abortionists, those tiny embryos are much more motivating, worthwhile, and human than the disposable storage devices hosting them.

    The abortion issue is also complicated by the fact that a male voter’s past conflicts with women (or unconscious resentments toward women in general) can adversely influence his specific opinion of women seeking abortions. There’s a visceral anger displayed by many male opponents that seems to extend far beyond the narrow bounds of the abortion issue. Some even seem to relish the notion that abortion restrictions or prohibitions could humiliate, impoverish, and permanently damage the lives of millions of girls and women every year, because “they deserve it.”

    Also, some male voters are upset about their lack of control over the gestation of their children, and feel threatened and resentful that a woman can legally end pregnancies without a fathers’ consent.

    There’s also a significant voting block of both men and women struggling to overcome infertility. Some undoubtedly envy the ease of others’ pregnancies and have difficulty relating to women who don’t want pregnancy. If they have problems finding a baby to adopt, some may even support anti-abortion laws, believing those laws will increase the supply or “selection” of babies they can choose from.

    In addition, the female voting population includes many women with little sexual experience, or little or no lifetime variation in partners. Moral beliefs of some of these women may harshly condemn women who have any kind of sex outside marriage, no matter the circumstances. Also, some inexperienced or restricted women are likely to subconsciously envy and resent sexually active women. Both could have difficulty relating to women with unwanted pregnancies, so some would undoubtedly feel that women who seek abortions are “sluts” who deserve to earn the “Wages of Sin” through months of compulsory disruptive pregnancy, painful birth, and the painful surrender of the baby for adoption ( … or the costly, life-altering assumption of child-rearing for 20+ years.) Some women believe such punishment would “serve them right.”

    Levels of support for “Abortion Rights” also vary among supporters, because pregnancy is a 9-month continuum ranging from a single-cell fertilized egg to a full-term baby ready for birth. Circumstances are wildly different at the beginning and end. Some voters want abortions available only in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of the mother’s health. Others are Pro-Choice during the first trimester, or during the second trimester, and Anti-Choice thereafter. Still others are purely “Pro-Choice” and want to keep all abortion decisions private and between a woman and her doctor only. Many answer opinion polls variably, depending on how questions are asked, leading to political confusion which then weakens the effectiveness of Pro-Choice advocates of all kinds.

    And finally, anti-abortionists are “funded” heavily by religious institutions with enormous political influence over the votes of devout church members. Here in Green Bay, the Catholic Church publicly and forcefully endorses anti-abortion Republican candidates by name, though such blatant electioneering is supposed to be illegal for tax-exempt religious organizations.

    The dollar value of this religious electioneering is huge, but not included in any campaign finance tally I’ve ever seen.

    Given all the emotions, indirect funding, and hidden power behind this issue, I’m not surprised that abortion rights are losing ground.

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