Why Pro-Choice Groups Vastly Outspend Pro-Life Groups in Political Campaigns

By some measures, pro-choice groups outspend their pro-life counterparts by as much as 10-to-one. But it all depends on what you count as an abortion policy group.
Author:
Publish date:
Updated on
Pro-choice activists, politicians, and others associated with Planned Parenthood gathered for a demonstration against the Trump administration's Title X rule change on February 25th, 2019, at city hall in New York City.

Pro-choice activists, politicians, and others associated with Planned Parenthood gathered for a demonstration against the Trump administration's Title X rule change on February 25th, 2019, at City Hall in New York City.

If you search the usual websites for campaign-finance data on pro-choice and pro-life groups, a surprising fact becomes clear: Pro-choice abortion-policy organizations outspend pro-life ones, by anywhere from 20 percent to 900 percent, nearly every year, going back to 1990, which is the oldest data gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics.

There are some variations in the data, depending in part on what you count as an "abortion policy" group. But as political givers are categorized by OpenSecrets.org and FollowTheMoney.org, pro-choice always comes out on top. For example, in 2018, pro-life groups put a total of $4.8 million toward independent spending and campaign contributions at the state and federal levels, according to FollowTheMoney.org. Pro-choice groups spent $50.7 million.

None of the half-dozen political scientists I emailed and talked over the phone with about this pattern could explain it. Many offered interesting hypotheses about what might be going on, but it's not easy to find supporting or refuting evidence for any of them. For example, it's possible that pro-choice groups can more easily raise money simply because a majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. But data on how many donors each group has isn't readily publicly available.

There is one interesting clue in the data. The spending is dominated by two fundraising powerhouses, EMILY's List, which aims to elect pro-choice, Democratic women to political office, and Planned Parenthood, the network of reproductive health clinics. Without them, pro-life and pro-choice political spending looks a lot more even. Indeed, if you exclude those two groups, both OpenSecrets.org and FollowTheMoney.org indicate that, between 2010 and 2016, pro-life groups, such as the Susan B. Anthony List and the National Right to Life Committee, outspent pro-choice groups. Without Planned Parenthood and EMILY's List, only in 2018 did pro-choice groups spend more than pro-life ones, and only by about 10 percent, according to OpenSecrets.org.

EMILY's List and Planned Parenthood are unique because they're arguably not primarily abortion-policy groups. Both unabashedly support access to abortion, but also have other goals. (Only about 3 percent of the services Planned Parenthood clinics provide are abortions, according to the organization. Contraception and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infection account for the bulk of the clinics' work.) Indeed, the two organizations are borderline on enough cases that OpenSecrets.org doesn't classify EMILY's List as an abortion-policy group, while FollowTheMoney.org doesn't classify Planned Parenthood as such.

These two groups' larger goals may mean they're drawing support and donations from a wider swath of people than groups, such as the Right to Life Committee or NARAL Pro-Choice America, that focus only on abortion policy, researchers say. They may also spend more because they're trying to do more. "They may have more bills they want to advocate on, that are relevant to what they're doing," says Jennifer Nicoll Victor, a political scientist who studies campaign finance at George Mason University. Planned Parenthood, for example, has paid for ads supporting the Affordable Care Act.

The inconsistencies in categorizing EMILY's List and Planned Parenthood also point to a problem with tallying pro- and anti-abortion spending. What counts as relevant spending? Abortion policy has become highly partisan over the past two decades, so that general liberal and conservative groups can be expected to take their side's stance on the issue. But do America Votes or the Senate Conservatives Fund count as pro-choice or pro-life groups? How about the Judicial Crisis Network, which spent heavily in support of President Donald Trump's two nominees to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh? The group backs conservative judges in general; the practical effect of Gorsuch's and Kavanaugh's appointments is that it now seems possible, to both sides, that Roe v. Wade may be overturned. Neither the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs OpenSecrets.org, nor the National Institute on Money in Politics, which runs FollowTheMoney.org, counts these more general groups as abortion policy organizations. But it can be difficult to draw the line.

So this apparent disparity in spending doesn't actually tell us how much money goes into the issue on either side. What it does illustrate is that there is a unique kind of group that exists only on the pro-choice side: powerful, well-established organizations that have a long history of fighting for abortion access as part of a larger, morally cohesive platform—women's rights, reproductive health—that's not quite as big or as much of a hodgepodge as "liberal" or "conservative" in general. It was Planned Parenthood's immediate past president, Cecile Richards, who succeeded in fusing the organization's health-care focus and political advocacy "into a brand unlike any other in American politics," as The Atlantic called it in 2018.

In comparison, pro-life groups have struggled. "For some time, the anti-abortion movement didn't have a natural political home at all," says Mary Ziegler, an expert in abortion law history at Florida State University. The Susan B. Anthony List, whose "mission is to end abortion by electing national leaders and advocating for laws that save lives," initially sought to elect pro-life women of any party. One of its founders, Rachel McNair, was a liberal feminist who held pro-life views based on her Quaker faith, as Mother Jones has reported. However, the group didn't really gain in fundraising prowess and influence until it shifted to supporting both male and female pro-life politicians, nearly all of them Republicans. That is, it didn't succeed until it aligned itself fully with conservatism.

Support for anti-abortion policies outside of a general conservative platform exists. In 2016, Slate profiled young activists who linked their "pro-life" beliefs with opposition to torture and the death penalty, as well as abortion. But it's apparently not enough to create anything like Planned Parenthood or EMILY's List, at least not yet.

Related