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‘Dark money’ fuelling 'retrograde' anti-abortion activity in UK

FILE - A protesters outside a women's health care service clinic in the US, 2008.
FILE - A protesters outside a women's health care service clinic in the US, 2008. Copyright MIKE HUTMACHER/AP2008
Copyright MIKE HUTMACHER/AP2008
By Joshua Askew
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"We should all be troubled that they [US anti-abortion groups] seem to be turning their fire on the UK," one organisation warned.

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“Dark money” has surged into UK anti-abortion groups in recent years, Euronews has learnt, aiding controversial activism and raising questions about overseas political influence inside the country.

According to data shared with Euronews by the Good Law Project, "shadowy" funds - where the source is obscured and not fully disclosed - nearly doubled for the UK branch of the "hate group" Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) from 2020 to 2022.

Founded in the US in 1993, the ADF is an influential conservative group that aims to promote “Christian principles and ethics”. It is behind a host of legal efforts to roll back abortion rights, remove LGBT+ protections and demonise trans people. 

After claiming its “tireless work” helped the US Supreme Court overturn Roe v Wade, which guaranteed the right to abortion, the ADF has supported controversial anti-abortion activity in the UK, including protesters outside reproductive and sexual health clinics.

Concerns have risen among rights groups that the ADF is ramping up spending in an attempt to bring US-style abortion politics to the UK, where abortion is widely supported and generally available up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Dark money refers to funding that is given to political groups or politicians in an attempt to influence the democratic process whose source is not disclosed. When politically active nonprofits choose not the reveal where their money came from, they are considered dark money groups, according to Open Secrets, a US-based monitor.

“There is nothing "dark" about our money, but that does not mean we can or will publish the names of our more than 750,000 individual supporters - in clear contravention of data privacy law,” said ADF International in a statement sent to Euronews.

“We receive donations from supporters in 107 countries who contribute mostly small sums. This all goes toward our legal advocacy in defence of fundamental freedoms, to the benefit of everyone.”

While there's no specific law forbidding organisations from publishing the names of their financial donors, British data protection laws mean they can only do so with their explicit consent.

“Dark money” flows into ADF UK - which is a registered charity - surged from £390,000 in 2020 to £770,000 in 2022, as per figures from the Good Law Project, a British NGO. 

ADF UK has not disclosed who its funders are. However, in its latest report, the charity said it “has received financial support in the form of unrestricted donations from Alliance Defending Freedom, a linked charity in the US.”

The global wing of the ADF reportedly has a multi-million dollar budget, but again does not reveal the identity of donors.

"You may be surprised - and horrified - to learn that the charitable status of a dark money funded hate group from the US means our taxes are subsidising anti-abortion protests in the UK,” said Jennine Walker, Legal Manager at Good Law Project, in a statement sent to Euronews.

“After their hand in overturning Roe v Wade in the US, we should all be deeply troubled that they now seem to be turning their fire on the UK. We may never even know the true identity of who is trying to influence our policy because their funding is so shadowy.”

ADF UK in recent months has given legal support to protesters in Birmingham and Bournemouth arrested within “buffer zones” – which are designed to protect women when they are seeking abortion care, the Good Law Project reports.

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In Liverpool, ADF UK has supported a 76-year-old grandmother who was arrested and subject to a fixed penalty notice for walking, masked, silently in the vicinity of an abortion centre.

FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 file photo, protesters opposed to abortion hold placards outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 file photo, protesters opposed to abortion hold placards outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, Northern Ireland.Peter Morrison/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved.

Protests outside sexual and reproductive health clinics are highly controversial as potentially vulnerable women can be subjected to intimidation and harassment before what can already be a difficult and emotional procedure.

“Regarding “protests” outside of abortion facilities: we wholeheartedly condemn harassment against women, which is already illegal in countries that respect law and order, as it should be,” said the ADF in a statement sent to Euronews.

“At the same time, we defend the rights to peaceful expression integral to a free society.”

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The ADF said it had more than 1,500 open cases and legal matters in more than 100 countries. 

The US-based Southern Poverty Law Center has previously listed the ADF as a “hate group” for allegedly supporting the “idea that being LGBTQ+ should be a crime in the US.”

It has handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars to fringe organisations which have sought to diminish the rights of trans students in US schools, the Guardian reported in June. 

The ADF told Euronews this “hate group allegation” was “completely false”, claiming it “grossly mischaracterizes our global efforts to advance the human rights inherent to every person.”

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Demonstrators hold placards as they attend a march in support of the Abortion Rights group, in London, Saturday, July 9, 2022.
Demonstrators hold placards as they attend a march in support of the Abortion Rights group, in London, Saturday, July 9, 2022.Alberto Pezzali/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

Opening an office in London in 2017,  ADF UK has engaged in wider activity, speaking at universities, giving media interviews - including with the BBC - and hosting events on “Cancel Culture and Freedom of Speech”.

The Good Law Project says it has expanded its lobbying at Westminister, hosting events and engaging with All-Party Parliamentary Groups. 

An investigation by openDemocracy found it was also linked to campaigns against assisted dying in the UK.

“The majority of people in the UK believe women and pregnant people should be able to control their own bodies and access abortion care, if that is what they have chosen to do, free from harassment,” said Polly Jackman, National Coordinator of Sister Supporter, in an email received by Euronews.

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“These fundamentalist groups don’t agree. They want to impose their retrograde view of women on the population of the UK by using their money to lobby the highest levels of our government without any accountability. It should not be allowed. In this country, we trust women, not agenda-driven lobbyists.”

According to pollsters YouGov, 87% of Britons say abortion should be allowed, compared to only 6% who say it should not, while 7% are unsure.

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