When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the country’s top internet companies quickly responded with commitments to help employees in states that moved to ban abortion. In an implicit signal of support for abortion rights, the companies said they would help those employees seek abortions in states where the procedure remains legal.
In the years leading up to the seismic reproductive rights decision, however, the tech giants sponsored a controversial group that’s worked tirelessly to put the Supreme Court under conservative control, setting the stage for Roe’s reversal.
The Independent Women’s Forum traces its origins back to the 1991 fight to confirm the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas. Since then, the group has expanded into promoting a litany of perennial right-wing causes like climate denial, immigration alarmism, and deregulation, but a conservative-dominated Supreme Court remained a focus.
Public relations plays a key role in its operation. With savvy self-branding as a pro-woman organization, the group fought for the appointment of conservative justices to the Supreme Court. The IWF couched support for Bret Kavanaugh as good feminism and any opposition to Amy Coney Barrett as sexism — despite well-founded concerns that their ascensions to the court would spell the end of Roe. The IWF wields a skillful mix of media placement, op-eds, television punditry, and other contributions to the conservative content ecosystem.
The group also takes advantage of quieter influence peddling as well. In 2020, IWF chief and Vicks VapoRub heiress Heather Higgins boasted to a closed audience of Virginia conservatives about how instrumental the group was in rallying congressional support for Kavanaugh’s nomination. Higgins told the group that the IWF circulated a confidential strategy memo on the Hill. “Most important,” Higgins said, “Susan Collins told me that without that memo, she would not see how to support him,” referring to the Republican senator from Maine.
Independent Women’s Forum and its sister organization, Independent Women’s Voice, draw on donations from right-wing financial mainstays like the Koch brothers, but in recent years the groups have enjoyed financial support from Facebook’s parent company, Meta; Google; and Amazon. In 2017, Google sponsored an IWF gala at the “gold” donor level, according to brochures provided to The Intercept by True North Research, a progressive watchdog group. Other brochures show that Meta (which at the time still using the name Facebook) sponsored IWF galas in 2018, alongside Google, and 2019. Honorees at IWF events have included notable anti-abortion figures like Rep. Lynne Cheney, R-Wy.; top Trump administration official Kellyanne Conway; and Vice President Mike Pence.
Corporate disclosures from Amazon show that the company donated undisclosed sums to the IWF in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
Amazon, Google, Meta, and the IWF did not respond to a request for comment.
True North founder Lisa Graves characterized the IWF’s efforts as an attempt to launder conservative ideology. “They act as a distaff,” she said in an interview, “in essence providing a woman’s face for the right wing’s critique or attack on progressives and its advance of this extreme and regressive, repressive agenda.”
Patrice Onwuka, director of the Independent Women’s Forum’s Center for Economic Opportunity, speaks during a town hall event hosted by House Republicans on March 1, 2022 in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Despite the public perception of Silicon Valley’s alignment with progressive values and liberal causes, tech companies, particularly those fearing state regulation, have long funneled money to right-wing groups like the IWF. At the same time, the IWF routinely pushes policy positions that are highly favorable to its corporate donors.
The IWF has consistently espoused tech industry-friendly positions on labor, antitrust, and other issues, without disclosing its donors’ interests. Take, for example, an April IWF blog post that warned that antitrust enforcement against Big Tech would prove disastrous. “Tech innovation has been nothing short of miraculous over the past few decades,” wrote Patrice Onwuka, director of IWF’s Center for Economic Opportunity and its go-to defender of powerful tech firms.
Few issues in tech have galvanized the IWF and Onwuka like the bipartisan American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which would block tech companies from leveraging their enormous reach to favor their own services over competitors. In a December 2021 piece titled “Amazon Prime may not be around to save the day next Christmas,” Onwuka claimed, “Senator Amy Klobuchar and others are on a path to end services like Prime’s fast and free shipping and other services that we depend upon.” Onwuka then linked to a blog post by the Amazon-funded Chamber of Progress that claimed, dubiously, that the law would “ban Amazon Prime.”
In June, Onwuka wrote a jeremiad against congressional antitrust efforts: “The conveniences that make life and work easier and faster and save consumers money may disappear.” Later that day, Onwuka appeared on Fox Business, again protesting antitrust enforcement against the tech industry. “I’m more worried about the impact on small business owners and on women and families that rely on some of the benefits that some of these big four tech companies provide,” she said.
While shielding Big Tech from antitrust scrutiny has proven a priority for the IWF, the group also stands up directly for its benefactors. In 2019, Onwuka wrote an entire post dedicated sticking up for Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg after Politico reported that he had attended dinners with notable conservative commentators and lawmakers. “Zuckerberg is a private citizen who can eat dinner with whomever he wants,” Onwuka wrote. “His dinner has a clear business purpose and that’s part of doing business.”
“Institutionally they have no position on abortion, that’s their stated position. But organizationally, they have backed the most aggressive anti-choice slate of judges we’ve ever seen.”
The cordial treatment of industry giants is of course a linchpin of conservatism, and the IWF would almost certainly be warning that antitrust will bring us back to the Bronze Age even without Google sponsoring its gala dinners. But fueling the right-wing punditry mill is a large, ever-expanding facet of Big Tech’s political strategy.
While there’s no evidence that Zuckerberg or Google CEO Sundar Pichai have any personal opposition to abortion access, their companies no doubt benefit from their support of a broad, thriving conservative discourse ecosystem in which any government regulation is anathema. For tech company leadership, the reality that this ecosystem pushes not just Facebook-friendly laissez-faire economics, but also climate denial and abortion bans is considered a perhaps unfortunate but worthwhile byproduct.
Silicon Valley’s patronage of right-wing think tanks and campaigns is an arrangement in which there is ample plausible deniability to go around. When The Guardian reported in 2019 that Google was donating to some of the nation’s most notorious climate-denial organizations, a company spokesperson retorted, “We’re hardly alone among companies that contribute to organizations while strongly disagreeing with them on climate policy.”
The multitude of topics on which the IWF engages, and its careful avoidance of publicly opposing abortion access have helped it avoid a reputation as an anti-abortion group. “Institutionally they have no position on abortion, that’s their stated position,” explained Graves, of True North. “But organizationally, they have backed the most aggressive anti-choice slate of judges we’ve ever seen.”
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