US anti-abortion groups received millions in federal Covid-19 aid

Anti-abortion advocates hold signs as they stand in front of the US supreme court while participating in the 47th annual March For Life in Washington.
Anti-abortion advocates hold signs as they stand in front of the US supreme court while participating in the 47th annual March For Life in Washington. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Christian anti-abortion lobbying organizations received millions in taxpayer-backed forgivable loans from the US government’s coronavirus aid program, even as lawmakers demanded the nation’s largest abortion provider return federal loans.

Pro-reproductive rights groups have also received funding from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Planned Parenthood, America’s largest network of abortion and sexual health clinics, received $80m in PPP loans.

However, the government agency that oversees the program later tried to claw back loans from Planned Parenthood after Republican criticism, whereas Christian conservative groups were not subject to such efforts.

“What we’re seeing with this is a lightyear leap into direct government financing of major Christian right political entities on a scale we’ve never seen before,” said Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, an expert on the American religious right.

The discrepancy in how Planned Parenthood and Christian anti-abortion groups were treated after they received coronavirus stimulus money, “is absolutely a double standard”, Clarkson said. “That’s an egregious violation of ethical norms.”

A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the vice-president of government relations, Jacqueline Ayers, called the clawback, “a clear political attack on Planned Parenthood health centers and access to reproductive healthcare”.

Among the Christian right organizations that received Cares Act funding were the American Family Association (AFA), an influential conservative Christian group which opposes abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.

The AFA has been described as a hate group by tracking experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the past, AFA has described homosexuality as, “a poor and dangerous choice” and blamed the Holocaust on gay people.

The American Center for Law & Justice, an anti-abortion group led by Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow, also received funding.

Notably, the groups received PPP loans in early April, about a week before the loan program ran out of money, and at a time when many large companies were under intense scrutiny to return loans.

The US treasury department released the names of companies that received more than $150,000 in funding on Monday. The disclosure represents less than 15% of all the loans made under the PPP, according to a Washington Post database. Nearly 11,000 religious organizations received at least $3bn in funding from the Paycheck Protection Program.

The AFA, which is based in Tupelo, Mississippi, received between $1-2m, and said it protected 124 jobs with the money. Its non-profit mission statement is, “to promote the biblical ethic of decency in society”. A recent AFA blogpost described abortion as, “an evil running rampant in the United States for a long time”.

The AFA also invests a huge amount of money in lobbying every year. Between 2014-2017 the group spent more than $874,000 trying to change public opinion, according to its non-profit disclosures.

One of the most important efforts housed by the AFA, according to Clarkson, is the American Renewal Project, an electoral project of the Republican campaign strategist David Lane. Lane believes the United States needs to “re-establish a Christian culture”, and called for a religious war in a 2013 essay headlined “Wage war to restore a Christian nation”.

American Center for Law & Justice also works to end abortion, and also received between $1-2m in PPP loans. In the past, the ACLJ has hired telemarketers to raise money off the back of the Trump administration’s investigations of Planned Parenthood, saying in a script that abortion providers had been put “on their heels”, and before citing Sekulow in their pitch.

“Can I let Jay know you’re standing with him with a gift?” telemarketers asked potential donors. More recently, the ACLJ promised to sue California for restricting singing inside churches, because it is believed to spread Covid-19.

Pay to the ACLJ’s staff of attorneys could amount for a large proportion of their PPP loan. The group’s senior litigator alone earns more than $514,000 a year. He is one of a dozen key employees, most of whom earn six-figure salaries.

Neither the AFA nor the ACLJ responded to the Guardian’s request for comment.

A woman’s right to choose …

… is under serious threat for the first time in generations. On the heels of an unprecedented wave of anti-abortion laws passed last year, the Supreme Court will consider a case this year that could dramatically curtail reproductive freedom. Meanwhile, the current administration continues to fill federal courts with judges likely to undermine Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision securing the right to abortion.

The Guardian views reproductive freedom as fundamental to women’s health and human rights, and is committed to reporting rigorously on behalf of the women in America who need access to reliable, high quality healthcare.

The stakes couldn’t be higher in 2020, the need for a robust, independent press has never been greater. With your support we can continue to provide fact-based reporting that offers public scrutiny and oversight. Our journalism is free and open for all, but it’s made possible thanks to the support we receive from readers like you across America in all 50 states.

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