Private Giving Protects Americans on Both Sides of the Abortion Debate

June 6, 2023 | Heather Lauer

We have entered a new phase of the abortion debate at a time when our First Amendment rights – and the safety of people on both sides of this issue – are being threatened.

The United States Department of Homeland Security warned of potential violence in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade. Unfortunately, violence is not unfamiliar to both pro-choice and pro-life advocates. Two examples out of Colorado highlight the potential danger Americans face when engaged in this policy debate.

In 2015, a shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic tragically led to the deaths of three people and injuries to nine others. The standoff finally ended when police crashed armored vehicles into the lobby of the building to rescue people locked in a protected room inside, and the shooter was taken down by a gunshot wound. During his courtroom appearances, the attacker made multiple statements about his anti-abortion views and called himself a “warrior for the babies.” He had no remorse for his actions.

Then, just last year, the Life Choices pregnancy center in Longmont, Colorado was vandalized and set on fire following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs. Fortunately, no one was killed in that attack, but the building sustained heavy damage. Messages written on the building included, “if abortions aren’t safe, neither are you.” To compound the threat, Colorado Liberation and Autonomy, an antifa-affiliated group, shared a map of pro-life crisis pregnancy centers on social media with threatening messages.

Both cases are real-life examples of what extremists are willing to do for their cause. There are no rules of engagement.

If the law in Colorado required the names and home addresses of donors to Planned Parenthood or Life Choices to be reported to the government and publicized in a publicly accessible database, both of these chilling attacks could have turned out much worse. The Planned Parenthood shooter could have targeted donors at their homes or places of business, and the Life Choices arsonists could have taken their protest to the doorsteps of those supporters’ homes.

If nonprofit organizations are unable to guarantee their supporters’ privacy, fewer Americans will be willing to support important causes and engage in First Amendment-protected debate about issues of national importance.

One year before Dobbs, another significant Supreme Court case was decided in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta. In that ruling, regarded as one of the most important First Amendment decisions in over 60 years, the Court determined that the California Attorney General had been wrong in requiring nonprofit organizations to disclose their donors in order to be able to fundraise in the state.

As Chief Justice Roberts explained in the decision: “We are left to conclude that the Attorney General’s disclosure requirement imposes a widespread burden on donors’ associational rights.”

The Court’s holding was supported by nearly 300 groups with varying beliefs and missions, from the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign, and PETA to the Gun Owners of America, National Association of Manufacturers, and Proposition 8 Legal Defense Fund.

Despite multiple Supreme Court decisions affirming that donor privacy is protected by the First Amendment, as well as widespread bipartisan support for protecting associational privacy, politicians and anti-privacy activists across the country are pushing for laws that would force nonprofits to report the names and home addresses of their supporters to the government. The private, sensitive information they are pushing to collect could be easily accessed by anyone through an online, searchable database. Justified in the name of “transparency,” these proposals threaten the privacy and safety of ordinary Americans seeking to support causes they believe in deeply, including some of the most controversial issues of our time such as abortion.

As “cancel culture” rages and political divisions deepen, the ability for Americans to financially contribute to causes they hold dear without the threat of losing their job, being ruthlessly attacked on social media, or having their safety endangered is under attack.

The intense reaction from both sides of the abortion debate since the Supreme Court’s decision shows how far this fight is from being settled. It is critical for groups representing both pro-choice and pro-life viewpoints to be engaged in a conversation about what comes next on behalf of the millions of Americans who care about this issue. They need to be able to have that policy debate without subjecting their supporters to targeting, harassment, intimidation, and physical harm.

Lawmakers should think critically about the importance of protecting the privacy of nonprofit supporters in this hyperpolarized time.