Debbie Stabenow

(WOMENSENEWS)–The television commercial run by the National Right to Life Committee in Michigan didn’t tell viewers how to vote in the U.S. Senate election in 2000. It did tell them to call and complain to Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, for her failure to support a ban on abortion. Stabenow happened to be running for the Senate seat held by the anti-choice Republican Spencer Abraham, who ultimately lost.

Now, National Right to Life is in court to fight against new campaign finance reform measures that would require disclosure of the contributors of similar issue ads. The case highlights a little-known aspect of the anti-choice group: the powerful anti-abortion committee has made the fight against campaign finance reforms as important as its attacks on abortion.

The committee has been a major litigating force in attacking campaign finance reform, says Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a pro-choice group in New York. Northup’s group takes no position on campaign finance. Neither do NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood Federation of America or Voters For Choice, all of which run advertisements and advocate for candidates.

This spring, the combined interests of the National Right to Life Committee in rolling back campaign finance reform and rolling back the right to abortion may both reach critical turning points. The anti-choice majority that took over the Senate in January passed Thursday a wide-ranging abortion ban embedded deftly in so-called “partial-birth abortion” legislation originated by National Right to Life. The House, also controlled by anti-choice majority, is expected to follow suit quickly. The legislation will likely be signed by President George W. Bush, whose 2000 election campaign was aided by expenditures of $2.7 million dollars by the National Right to Life Committee.

Also, the public will hear the first round of legal opinions issued by the federal district court in Washington D.C. on the challenges of National Right to Life and others to the campaign finance reform that was intended to put the brakes on anonymous free-spending in electoral campaigns. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on issue ads each election cycle.

A special three-judge panel, presided over by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, in Washington, D.C. will rule on all challenges to the campaign reform law, including the issue of anonymously-backed “issue ads,” in a case known as McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. Thousands of pages of documents were filed in the case and oral arguments were held in December. A decision is expected any day. By an expedited judicial review process written into the campaign finance law, the case will go directly to the United States Supreme Court, possibly for a decision by the end of its term in July.

Litigating Across the Country

The right to life committee’s fight against campaign finance reform for is led by James Bopp, Jr., the committee’s longtime lawyer.

“It’s costing us hundreds of thousands to litigate,” said Bopp in a phone interview.

He has sued in dozens of jurisdictions across the country on behalf of National Right to Life or affiliates, attacking campaign reforms via the James Madison Center for Free Speech that was founded by Betsy DeVos, whose family is one of the nation’s wealthiest and biggest donors to conservative Republicans.

“I think our members care a lot about the restrictions that have been imposed on National Right to Life,” said Bopp. The new law inhibits the ability of committee, founded in 1973 to overturn Roe v. Wade, to communicate its positions, he added.

So forceful is its opposition to campaign reform that it withdraws support from politicians who are anti-choice but support campaign reform. Senator John McCain, the Arizona, a prominent backer of reform, fell victim to attacks during his 2000 Presidential run. At one point, McCain issued a letter reiterating his longstanding opposition to abortion, and noting: “Yet I have incurred the wrath of the Washington office of National Right to Life on the completely unrelated issue of campaign finance.” McCain accused the group of “squandering valuable time and resources opposing my efforts to eliminate the corrupting influence of soft money,” instead of on the “fight for life.”

In response, National Right to Life Committee unleashed a flurry of materials opposing McCain, just as it has against other politicians who support campaign finance reform. As a vote neared on the reform bill in the House of Representatives last year, the National Right to Life Committee’s executive director David N. O’Steen sent a letter to members of Congress, expressing strong opposition to the legislation and warning that the committee “intends to include any vote on the adoption of the (campaign finance reform) bill in the National Right to Life Committee scorecard of key congressional roll calls for 2002.” Many anti-choice House members wish to maintain a 100 percent rating.

“Issue Ads” Contested

One central point in the latest campaign finance reform is to “out” hidden contributors who were able to skirt the disclosures required of political action committees, known as PACs. National Right to Life, like many other groups, has public disclosures of contributors to its political action committee. But it objects to additional disclosure under the new Bi-partisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 that requires revealing the behind-the-scenes contributors to certain “issue ads,” previously a loophole in the law.

“Issue ads are a huge sham and a place where a lot of money is spent to affect our elections,” said Deborah Goldberg, acting director of the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City, which supports campaign finance reform. “National Right to Life has been arguing all over the country that it should not have to disclose where its money is coming from.”

“Issue ads” are those like the ones used against Stabenow in Michigan that do not specifically tell a viewer how to vote in an election, even though the message may come through loud and clear. Previously, only an ad that mentioned a candidate’s name and expressly urged a vote for or against the candidate qualified as a campaign ad, requiring disclosure of contributors. Under the new law, funders must be named when an ad names a candidate and is run within 60 days of a federal general election or 30 days of a primary.

The provision closes a major gap in the old campaign laws. “Issue ads” that avoided disclosure became rampant in the last six years. By 2000, “issue ads” accounted for 96 percent of the pre-election ads by groups and contributors poured $600 million into them, according to research by the Brennan Center. Voters and watchdog groups had no way of knowing if corporations, unions, political parties, special interests or even foreign agents were the hidden sponsors of the ads.

Bopp said that the National Right to Life Committee believes reform legislation hurts “people of average means who have to pool their resources, to the benefit of the wealthy who can spend their money on broadcast ads.” He added: “I’m not against the wealthy participating in our democracy. I just don’t think it should be limited to them.”

New Law Reins in Hidden Donations

The intent of the new campaign finance law is to provide a paper trail for vast sums of money that interest groups pour into pre-election advertising similar to what is now required of political action committees.

The National Right to Life Committee, which has four separately funded nonprofits, and separately funded affiliates in 50 states and 3,000 communities, is not alone in challenging the campaign finance law. Over 80 individuals and groups filed 11 lawsuits, now consolidated, to oppose the reforms. The groups range from the National Rifle Association to the Christian Coalition. The liberal American Civil Liberties Union is also contesting the law, although several former ACLU lawyers and directors publicly disagreed.

Other advocacy groups are comfortable with the reforms.

“We just follow the rules, whatever they are,” said Maureen Britell, executive director of Voters for Choice, which raised approximately $500,000 for pro-choice candidates in 2002.

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York City.

For more information:

Brennan Center for Justice:

National Right to Life Committee:

Campaign and Media Legal Center: