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A Corporate Lobbyist’s View Of The Abortion Issue

A.T. Thomas
Oct 6, 2020 · 18 min read

Too bad There Is No Lobbyists’ Hall Of Fame

As a corporate lobbyist, I often found myself at legislative conferences with state and federal lawmakers. In the mid-1990s, I was at a table of female Republican elected officials. . The lively table conversation eventually turned to abortion, a subject on which they agreed — they all wanted to see the Republican platform “updated” to eliminate its anti-abortion position.

A few years later, two of those women ran for high-level offices. To my surprise, both not only ran on the standard anti-abortion platform, both made speeches supporting anti-choice legislation. I assumed they needed to adhere to the GOP platform to get campaign funding from the Republican National Committee (RNC). Probably true, but there is more to the story.

Before the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, the issue of abortion fell on the state legislators, since, under the Constitution, states have the right to regulate matters of public health, such as abortion.

In Roe, the Court decided that women had a constitutionally protected right of privacy to manage their own pregnancies. That right superseded a state’s right to regulate health. This decision suddenly made abortion an issue for federal, not state law.

The Roe decision didn’t immediately become an Evangelical issue. In the early 20th century, Catholics often opposed abortion, but Protestants did not. Until modern medicine, miscarriages, stillbirths and the death of premature babies were a normal part of existence, as were women dying in childbirth and children dying in infancy.

As Bill Moyers reports, in 1900, women didn’t consider themselves pregnant until they could feel the fetus move, at about the fourth or fifth month. Terminating a pregnancy before then, as most women now do, was not considered abortion.

When my grandmother had a miscarriage in the 1930s, everyone, even a Catholic priest, comforted her by saying the soul hadn’t entered the body and was still waiting to be born. In 1968, Christianity Today summed up the Protestant position saying that since a soul didn’t enter a body until birth, human life began at birth, not at conception.

Frank Shaeffer, son of Evangelical leaders Francis and Edith Shaeffer, explains how abortion became political in his autobiographical book, Crazy for God. Frank, the teenage father of a baby girl, suggested to his famous father that his baby had a right to be born. His father was skeptical, but eventually warmed to the idea. Francis then talked to other Evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

At first, Roberston and Falwell were not interested because it was “a Catholic issue,” not “our issue.” Frank and his father then produced a series of documentary films to promote the idea. As Frank wrote:

“It took a lot of hard work to change that apathy on the “issue.” And oddly what in the end gave the series credibility were the Republican political leaders who saw the chance to cash in on the issue. The fact they began to pay attention to Dad and me got evangelical leader’s juices flowing: They coveted our new access to power!”

He further explains the decision to adopt abortion as part of the Republican platform wasn’t the result of deep moral outrage, but a strategic, political move.

Our strategy was simple: Republican leaders would affirm their antiabortion commitment to evangelicals — no matter if they were true believers or not (e.g., Reagan was pro-choice until we “changed” his mind) — and in turn, we’d vote for them by the tens of millions.”

The Shaeffers helped Republicans by touting the abortion message at every opportunity, including tv appearances. In that way, they “seduced” the Republican party to become “less a political party and more a wing of the then emerging religious right.”

Frank Shaeffer’s writing helped me understand how abortion changed from the sleepy issue we politely debated in junior high English class in the days before Roe, to a behemoth political issue. It explained how the Evangelicals — a term I’d never heard before the 1980s — became a force in the Republican party. It helped explain why few of my Republican friends, including elected officials and their staff, actually cared about the issue.

Opposing abortion is a brilliant political strategy. Republicans get middle and working class people to support their legislative agenda, which favors corporate power and wealth. This agenda include tax cuts for the rich, and cuts in the environmental, employee safety and consumer regulations meant to protect the rest of us.

Without this hot button issue, most people either would be indifferent to, or would oppose, these corporate initiatives. Abortion also inspires people to make donations, volunteer in political campaigns and vote. If you hear someone is a one issue voter, this is normally that issue.

The abortion issue also provides a cloak of morality that shields Republicans from criticism. They oppose abortion, so they can claim to be moral, regardless of the party’s stance on other issues, and regardless of Trump’s lies and vulgarities.

One photograph of a Black Lives Matter protest showed a nearby wall of graffiti with the words “unborn black lives matter” — a rather passive aggressive attempt to counter the BLM movement by claiming the moral high ground.

This strategy has no downside. Privacy laws prevent anyone from knowing if they, or their spouse, has had an abortion. They are free to win votes by opposing abortion — even if they’ve had one.

The people in influential positions are mostly men. All of them have more than enough money to take their wives, daughters and mistresses to another country to get an abortion if it ever were to become illegal in the US.

Abortion is also a fundraising bonanza for Republicans. In January, The Susan B. Anthony List (SBL), a Political Action Committee (PAC) unveiled a $52 million dollar budget to re-elect Trump and keep a Republican Senate. That is just one of several anti-abortion groups, each with their own large budget for campaign spending.

Rachel McNair, described by Mother Jones magazine as a “Quaker, a vegan and to the left of many Democrats on most issues,” co-founded the The Susan B. Anthony List (SBL), a Political Action Committee (PAC). The SBL was intended to provide campaign donations to “pro-life” women candidates of both political parties. McNair said that when she left the organization, she was outraged as “Republicans took over,” “hijacking” her PAC.

The SBL now provides funding to almost exclusively Republican candidates, including men. In 2010, the group even ran expensive ad campaigns against 20 “pro-life” Democrats, contributing to the defeat of 15 of them

The organization said it turned on these 20 Democratic “pro-life” candidates because they voted for a health care reform bill, which contained federal funding for abortions. Was that the real reason? I’m skeptical.

The reform bill proposed to end ‘preexisting conditions’ and allowed children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26. The insurance industry strongly opposed both provisions, which would cost them money.

Many insurers are big donors to the Republican National Committee (RNC). They pressured Republicans. In the end, as one told me, it’s easy to tell your constituents you voted against their health care because you were protecting the “unborn.” It is harder to say you were protecting your own campaign contributions.

Corporate pressure also influences the people who run anti-abortion organizations. Imagine you are the president of one of these organizations. You have millions in your campaign donation budget. You are responsible for deciding who gets the money. Now, walk into a room full of politicians. Do you feel powerful yet? You should. They all will try to ingratiate themselves.

These jobs also come with big salaries and expense accounts. It’s the kind of position people don’t willingly give up. It includes being on a first name basis with half of Congress plus many people on the President’s staff. That sort of prestige and power is highly addictive.

The most important skill for all non-profit managers — the key item on their performance reviews — is the ability to bring in money. To keep the prestige and power, these organizations need big money, the kind only billionaires give.

If Mr. Billionaire-Donor doesn’t want the organization to donate to a candidate who opposes abortion, but supports health insurance reform or corporate tax increases, the organization will honor his wish and donate only to pro-corporate candidates.

As you might expect, the lists of donors to these organizations include a large number of industrialists whose companies have huge regulatory issues such as the Koch Brothers and the Coors (beer) Family.

One example is the family of the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. The DeVos family owns Amway, a household product company. Amway walks a fine line between being a legitimate direct sales business, like Avon, and being an illegal pyramid scheme in which “Independent Business Owners” (IBOs) earn commissions for getting their friends, and their friends’ friends, to sell Amway products.

Amway is controversial. Many IBOs spend more money buying Amway’s sales training courses than they ever make. Critics note that Amway’s few successful sellers made their money by recruiting other sellers, not by selling the product.

Which side of the tightrope Amway falls on is subjective. It depends on how the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the courts views Amway’s hybrid business model, which includes both sales and seller recruitment.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) sued the company for fraud and price fixing in the 1970s. A 1979 court case upheld that the company’s pyramid recruitment structure because the IBOs also sold some products.

If that court had instead leaned toward consumer protection, it logically could have held that Amway was an illegal pyramid scheme, even if consumers did purchase a few boxes of detergent. As the New York Times opined, “The FTC’s refusal to define a pyramid scheme — and to act aggressively on that definition — is a dereliction of duty.”

The point is that Amway could be eliminated with stroke of a pen if Congress, the FTC and the courts had different views on consumer protection. So, it is not surprising that the DeVos family donates millions to the Republican party and other anti-regulatory organizations.

In the 2016 election cycle, Dick DeVos, Betsy’s (late) husband, donated more than $10 million of his $5.1 billion dollar fortune to Republican candidates and Republican causes. The DeVos family has given $200 million to Republican causes since the 1970s, about the time the FTC sued Amway for fraud.

The DeVos family donations go to organizations seeking to undermine unions, especially teachers’ and other public sector unions, prevent restitution to students defrauded by for-profit colleges, lower corporate taxes, destroy environmental regulations and oppose COVID-19 stay at home orders.

Ask yourself if you think that after spending millions on anti-union, anti-corporate tax and anti-regulatory causes, the DeVos family, and others like them, would be pleased to see an anti-abortion group make campaign donations to legislators on the other side of these issues? Would any organization financed by the DeVos family ever support a candidate who wants to ban Amway for fraud?

These organizations need big donors. The donors don’t need them. The mega donors could easily fund another organization instead, one that would quickly grab the big bucks and do their bidding. The lobbying organizations can’t afford to upset them.

Did the SBL really turn on the pro-life Democrats because they voted to end pre-existing conditions in the health care reform bill? It certainly would have been in their best financial interest.

This isn’t even corrupt. It’s pragmatic. By prioritizing their large donors’ wishes, no matter how unrelated to abortion, they get more money for their organization and its goals. (Of course, their salaries and expense accounts also generally increase with more funding.)

The people employed in these organizations may not know that their jobs help support efforts to reduce corporate taxes, take away health care, destroy the Endangered Species Act or unravel the social safety net. Those other issues are outside the scope of their responsibility. Their performance reviews don’t include collateral damage.

Now, put yourself into the shoes of the Democratic “pro-life” Congressmen who voted to reform health care. By the time the bill came up for a vote, you had only two options — yes or no.

You might decide that even though you don’t like federal funding for abortion, you should vote for the bill because many of your constituents otherwise would be denied health care. You could believe that voting for the bill was more “pro-life” than voting against it. However, if you put your constituents’ interest in health care ahead of your position on abortion, even for this one vote, you could find yourself fighting a mega-buck organization that you thought was on the same side.

These anti-abortion organizations thus serve as giant sledge hammers to bludgeon legislators into not only voting against abortion, but into following the pro-corporate deregulation priorities of the organizations’ biggest donors.

The sledgehammer, of course, doesn’t just include anti-abortion groups and the DeVos family. It includes billions of corporate “dark money” dollars that flow to de-regulation candidates through the back door of other lobbying organizations and “think tanks”.

Republican mega-donors can circumvent campaign finance restrictions and public disclosures by giving to anti-abortion organizations, which then donate to the donors’ favorite anti-regulatory politicians. Impermissible donations thus become permissible. And, everyone involved gets to claim moral superiority.

Corporations realize that lobbying their own issues isn’t always effective. For example, if a business needs to change the law in order to expand its facility over a wetland, it wouldn’t give the truthful reason “we need that wetland destroyed because it’s cheaper for us than buying land elsewhere.” Instead, the government affairs staff would find another reason, one that excites the “grass roots” (i.e., the employees and the community) enough to get them to help lobby the issue for free.

The goal of these “grassroots” campaigns (appropriately nicknamed ‘astro-turf’ for their phoniness) is to make it look as though the impetus for the action comes from voters concerned for their community, not from a corporation looking to increase profits at the expense of something else.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), for example, enlists thousands of gun owners to lobby on behalf of gun manufacturers. Not only do the manufacturers get free and effective “grassroots” lobbying assistance to fight gun sales restrictions, they charge membership dues. These free lobbyists thus help defray the organization’s cost. Although the bulk of the NRA’s funding come from the gun, and gun paraphernalia, manufacturers, memberships help disguise the astro-turf.

Once NRA members get involved, the companies get them on mailing lists and keep them worked up about “gun rights” so they buy more product. When there is a mass shooting, the companies avoid both the political heat and the media attention by letting the NRA talk for them. It’s a win-win for the manufacturers.

Some issues are harder to astro-turf, such as lowering corporate taxes and muzzling anti-trust laws. It is difficult to get the average person jazzed about these, even if you use the tried-and-true ‘jobs creation’ argument. The abortion issue comes in handy here. It is a means to harness the religious and moral fervor of anti-abortion activists. It uses that energy to power a corporate agenda.

There is no logical reason that anti-abortion and anti-regulation positions should be related. They have nothing in common.

Someone against governmental interference in business could logically be against interference in personal life decisions, such as abortion. Similarly, someone pro-life could support a social safety net, as well as environmental and other regulations necessary to sustain and protect life.

Abortion and de-regulation are only twisted together into one policy because that is what furthers the goals of corporate billionaires.

Yes, corporate big wigs like to argue they are simply following “traditional values” by outlawing both abortion and regulations. That is self-serving nonsense. Unions have operated, businesses have been regulated and rules against fouling water and spoiling land have been around for hundreds of years. The US’ commercial trade and consumer protection laws grew from ancient Roman law. Some women have ended pregnancies throughout history, while others have opposed this practice. There has never been a past time when everyone agreed on either unfettered capitalism or abortion.

It has become fashionable among some liberals to say that people who oppose abortion are hypocrites because they support a Republican party that fights every attempt to make the lives of babies better. Sister Joan Chittister’s words have become a well known meme:

“I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Many ‘rank and file’ Republican, including a few politicians, are not hypocrites. They believe that abortion is wrong as a moral issue and simply weigh their moral outrage over abortion against other issues they also may care about such as unions, health care or pollution.

Unfortunately, they are stuck in an ‘either or’ system, one that uses them to further corporate goals unrelated to abortion. An immune compromised teacher who donates to a large anti-abortion organization, may not realize how her hard earned donation will become part of a monolith used to try to break her union and weaken Covid-19 protections.

The powerful people in the Republican party, including the large donors, are hypocrites. They don’t care about abortion. Trump has laughed at Evangelicals. Trump, Mitch McConnell and Ronald Reagan were all pro-choice before they realized the power in opposing abortion.

The hypocrisy was shown in the Republican’s response to COVID-19, especially their callousness toward older people and the disabled. Republicans are “pro-life” when it comes to abortion because it’s free — the burden of an unwanted pregnancy falls on someone else. It’s different when saving people from COVID-19 costs them money.

Fiscal responsibility used to be the litmus test for a conservative, now it’s abortion. Unlike fiscal conservancy, which might interfere with a company’s next tax break or large stimulus check, being against abortion will never hinder a corporation’s ability to make money.

It is significant that Amy Coney Barrett, the person Trump picked to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Justice Ginsburg’s death, is a member of the Federalist society. The Federalist Society was started by Social Conservatives and Libertarians at several law schools in the 1980s.

Libertarians, like Social Conservatives, oppose government interference in business. Unlike Social Conservatives, they usually also oppose interference into people’s personal lives. Libertarians thus tend to favor marriage equality and abortion rights. The overlap between these two groups is their shared opposition to corporate regulation. That is the true heart of the Federalist Society.

The Federalist Society advocates reading the Constitution from the perspective of a (white, male, landowning) ‘Founding Father’. This creates an automatic racial and gender bias, as well as a bias against legislation designed to solve problems that didn’t exist (or weren’t acknowledged) in the 18th century.

Members of the Federalist Society have opposed affirmative action, environmental laws, the Affordable Care Act, gun regulations, and the regulation of businesses by governmental agencies such as the FTC and Environmental Protection Agency. The Society supported the Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United v. the Federal Election Commission decision, which struck down campaign finance rules on grounds they hindered free speech.

Members argue that these legal positions result from their “strict” interpretation of the Constitution. That’s laughable. The Society opposes Roe because there is no stated right of privacy in the Constitution. However, Citizens’ United found that a corporation’s right to donate money is constitutionally protected “free speech.” That’s not exactly stated either.

The Society is heavily funded by corporate interests, including the DeVos family, Koch Brothers, the Mercer Family (Breitbart founders), as well as untraceable “dark money” donations. As Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island observed, once nominated, those Federalist Society judges “deliver dependably” for their corporate donors.

Unfortunately, when the media covers judicial nominations and mentions the Federalist Society, it usually focuses only on abortion.

As long as abortion remains divisive, the GOP’s billionaire donors can hide the true (and usually unpopular) purpose of their “charitable” donations behind their alleged concern for the “unborn.”

Unfortunately, the issue is poised to continue for decades. Does a woman have a right of privacy regarding her pregnancy, as the court found in Roe? The Federalist Society says no. It’s not written in the Constitution. That’s true. Proponents of Roe argue that nothing in the Constitution makes sense unless people can live private lives. That’s certainly compelling.

The anti-abortion activists say that a fetus has its own life and individual DNA. Pro-choice activists argue it is part of a mother’s body. Again, both are true — and everyone knows it. Science has nothing to add.

The decision boils down to which interest you prioritize — mother or fetus. That is based on personal religion and philosophy, two subjects upon which there has never been universal agreement, especially in a country expressly founded on religious freedom.

In the end, it doesn’t matter to the GOP whether the pendulum swings for, or against, abortion. As long as we all stay distracted by this subject, they can pretend to fight ‘the good fight’ while using the issue to pass legislation advantageous only to them.

This legislative advantage translates into a monetary advantage by way of gutting anti-trust laws and unions, as well as environmental, employee and consumer protection legislation. They can create tax loopholes that only the largest and most sophisticated businesses can use. As the playing field becomes less level, the disparity in income and political power increases. The greater the disparity, the more this small group gains power.

Also, as average people become more economically insecure and powerless, they get angry. Right wing voices intentionally direct that vitriol at liberals. This gives the GOP political support for the very policies that caused much of the economic insecurity in the first place.

One solution is to reform campaign finance. There is nothing wrong with corporate lobbyists employed to explain a corporation’s point of view in a straightforward manner. The problem is when they, or anyone, have the ability to write untraceable campaign donation checks in the tens of thousands, thanks to the monster created by Citizens’ United.

Reversing Citizens’ United is not likely without a citizen uprising. It benefits corporate billionaires, who have the means to fight it. This situation is even more difficult because as long as GOP voters only focus on abortion, they may view dark money donations simply as a way to seat anti-abortion judges. They may not know those judges also will make other important decisions that hurt them.

It would help for us to be less dogmatic. People who oppose abortion have a right to do so. However, since their objections are based on religious beliefs, others have an equal right to their own, differing beliefs. That is the reality of the situation, no matter how much some people insist that everyone should share their view of “Truth”. Similarly, the argument “my body, my right” ignores the reality of having another life involved.

We need to acknowledge other citizens’ right to disagree. Civility and compromise make the system work. We all lose when we are broken into two warring camps. No Democrats want to kill babies or force women to have abortions. Most Republicans aren’t controlling misogynists.

Mostly, we need to end the alliance between abortion and anti-regulatory issues. They are not the same thing— we’ve just been brainwashed into thinking that.

People opposing abortion need to demand more from legislators. The Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice showed great leadership. Their letter, written in opposition to Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court, explains that as a federal judge, Barrett allowed employment discrimination, attacked the Affordable Care Act and upheld a wrongful conviction. It says:

“her past words show that she does not hold all life to be sacred … As a Catholic Sister, let me be clear: Catholics will not be bought off by a predetermined vote against Roe v. Wade. It is insulting to act as if my faith boils down to one issue.”

The letter also suggests that Barrett was picked solely for her opposition to Roe v. Wade. On that point, I disagree. Barrett was chosen because she allowed employment discrimination and attacked the Affordable Care Act. She wouldn’t have been nominated if she’d supported the ACA, regardless of her stance on abortion.

We should also consider the ridiculous waste of money on fighting this issue. The SBL plans to spend $50 million on candidate and issue campaigns. Planned Parenthood will spend $45 million. They are just two of several players. The total probably exceeds 100 million.

This money doesn’t include what both sides spend to counsel women. This is just the part that goes into advertising campaigns — either directly promoting one side of the issue, or promoting candidates. That’s $100 million going into the pockets of corporate media owners. It does nothing for mothers and babies.

An older state legislator, who had been in office in the 1970s, told me that before Roe, there were endless legislative fights over abortion. They clogged the system, making it difficult to pass other laws. She was against abortion. She said although she hated to admit it, Roe was the best thing to happen to state lawmakers. It allowed them to accomplish other goals.

If Roe is overturned, abortion again will be regulated by each state. The two sides will have to fight in all 50, working with state laws that haven’t been updated in decades. That’s enough turmoil to bog down the state legislatures and state courts. It will slow the progress of any environmental or other protective legislation for decades.

The abortion issue is a win-win-win for a small number of corporate billionaires. If there were such a thing as a Lobbyist’s Hall of Fame, it would be a key attraction.

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