UPDATE, January 20, 5:25 p.m.: This story has been updated to incorporate statements from the Independent Women’s Forum that were supplied after our stated deadline. The piece has also been clarified to reflect new information about the total number of employees.
With millions of dollars from right-wing donors, the women of the Independent Women’s Forum tackle many of conservatism’s hottest political and social topics.
Pushing the notion that “all issues are women’s issues,” the D.C.-based conservative group has not shied away from controversy. The group sent a spokesperson to testify against gun control laws in the aftermath of Newtown, claiming “guns make women safer.” Spokespeople have opposed the Violence Against Women Act, arguing that it has been a source of “waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer resources.” And they have defended Rush Limbaugh’s various misogynistic outbursts, including when he called a college student a “prostitute” and a “slut” for her support of the birth control benefit.
Outspoken as they are, however, there is one major issue on which the IWF has gone mute.
Get the facts, direct to your inbox.
Subscribe to our daily or weekly digest.
“The IWF has never taken a stance on abortion,” executive director Sabrina Schaeffer wrote in an email to Rewire.
Certainly, that is IWF’s public position. In an interview with Glamour magazine in early 2013, Schaeffer explained her organization’s reticence to engage in the public debate about reproductive rights:
It puts IWF in an interesting place, and sets us apart from other organizations, because we don’t talk about abortion and gay marriage and some of those social issues that are in many ways are very alienating to women… So many people are so discouraged when you have people on the fringe saying comments that are obviously offensive, saying things about “legitimate rape”. I don’t know what inspires anybody to say words like that. So yes, on one hand, part of me wishes that issue would just go away, but I’m sure I’m in the minority.
But Rewire has found that the IWF’s behind-the-scenes relationship with anti-choice groups contradicts what its spokespeople say.
An analysis of tax records shows that IWF derives much of its funding from the same groups that help underwrite extreme anti-choice organizations.
In 2013, the IWF reported revenues of $709,757 on its 990, with revenues of $4.4 million the previous year. The organization had eight compensated employees in 2013, according to a spokesperson. It spent approximately $800,000 on lobbying between 2010 and 2013, according to the 990 form. Congressional lobbying records do not show any activity by the IWF at the federal level, but they don’t track state-based lobbying efforts.
Recently, the IWF has been a darling of anti-choice funders and politicians. Between 2009 and 2012, IWF received a total of nearly $5.2 million from Donors Trust and the related Donors Capital Fund, according to Conservative Transparency, a site that tracks political contributions between conservative organizations. The Donors Trust groups are associated with the Koch brothers network, and were specifically designed so that wealthy contributors can give anonymously. (An FAQ on the Donors Trust page recognizes that donors may “wish to keep [their] charitable giving private, especially gifts funding sensitive or controversial issues.”)
Donors Capital Fund also gave almost $300,000 to the Family Research Council, a national anti-choice group, between 2009 and 2010.
The Koch-affiliated Center to Protect Patient Rights gave $250,000 to the IWF in 2010, and in 2010 and 2012 gave approximately $1.4 million to the Susan B. Anthony List, which has as its stated goal to “reduce and ultimately end abortion.”
Other major funders—including the John William Pope Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the National Christian Foundation—gave multi-thousand dollar donations to both the Independent Women’s Forum and the Family Research Council, a group that describes itself as “pro-marriage and pro-life.”
“Money is very targeted,” Craig Holman, public affairs lobbyist for the Congress watchdog group Public Citizen, told Rewire. “It’s very intentional. It’s not just random. You can judge from the funding sources what the ideology is both of the organization itself and the funders.”
Victoria R. Coley, a spokesperson from IWF, disputed the notion that the provenance of the organization’s funding says anything about their politics.
“Under your logic, this would mean Brookings and all liberal/progressive educational organizations are de facto pro-choice,” she wrote in an email to Rewire. “Yes we receive money from foundations that may also support pro-life causes but that is because we share other principles (economic liberty and limited government.)”
It is not only that groups backing the anti-choice movement are funding the IWF. In addition, its sister 501(c)4 organization has itself funded some of the most committed anti-choice politicians in the country. (The organizations share the same address, based on their tax filings).
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Independent Women’s Voice contributed nearly $1 million in the 2014 elections; much of that money went to outspoken anti-choice politicians. It gave $134,408 to Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner, who co-sponsored an abstinence-only federal grant program and supported federal bills that would give legal personhood rights to fetuses from the moment of fertilization. It gave $96,311 to Kansas Senate candidate Pat Roberts, who proudly voted anti-choice 64 times out of 64 opportunities.
And it contributed $92,965 to Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst—chosen by the GOP to give their response to the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night—who was endorsed by Iowa Right to Life, supports banning all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, and believes abortion doctors should be held criminally responsible for performing the procedure.
Coley declined to comment on whether these contributions amounted to de facto support for anti-choice laws.
But Holman of Public Citizen said that, in the case of political contributions, money talks even when individuals will not.
“The fact they’re making campaign contributions shows where they stand,” Holman told Rewire. “It is deceptive. People should be transparent, especially when you come to organizations that are going to be involved in politics.”
Despite its links to anti-choice organizations and candidates, the IWF’s stance on reproductive rights is more nuanced than most in the anti-choice world.
Schaeffer wrote an email to Rewire advocating for over-the-counter birth control, arguing that, “in a free market, providers truly have to compete for women’s business, which would lead to lower prices, more innovation, better products and easier access.” Over-the-counter birth control has repeatedly been touted by conservative lawmakers as an alternative to the Affordable Care Act; still, it would allow women to buy birth control without a prescription.
Much of IWF’s language appears calculated to put a moderate gloss on hard-right views.
For instance, the framing language that Schaeffer and her colleagues use mirrors the language of the pro-choice movement. An introductory IWF video envisions a future of limited government where, “most importantly, women will have the freedom to choose their own path. ” In a 2014 article in The Federalist, Schaeffer writes, “Monica Lewinsky understands something about feminism and gender equality that many women still do not: she believes in choices.” The article goes on to explain that Lewinsky sees herself as an agent, not a victim (one of the IWF’s favorite binaries), but still, the emphasis on the importance of choice is noteworthy coming from an anti-reproductive-choice organization.
But instead of changing the terms of the reproductive rights debate, the IWF has simply excised abortion from their talking points.
A reporter from the New York Post describes asking a panel of IWF women in September 2014 where they stood on abortion and being met with complete silence. Julie Gunlock (whose title at IWF is “Culture of Alarmism Director”) later told the reporter: “Mentioning abortion sucks all the oxygen out of the room.”