More Groups Focused on Banning Abortion Access Are Hitting Wisconsin

More Groups Focused on Banning Abortion Access Are Hitting Wisconsin

Part 5 of a New Guide to the Right-Wing Groups Targeting the Wisconsin Supreme Court

By Lisa Graves, Caitlin Mahoney, Alyssa Bowen, and Evan Vorpahl

Groups trying to make abortion illegal are backing Dan Kelly for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, including a Super PAC that calls itself “Women Speak Out” (WSO) even though its biggest recent funder is not a woman at all; it’s one man: Dick Uihlein. Uilhlein gave WSO more than it even spent last year, >$8 million via his Restoration PAC vehicle, letting him throw his voice by giving more than any woman by far. Uihlein–an anti-choice extremist who has fueled attacks on the 2020 presidential election–is also the main source for Kelly’s biggest backer, the front group “Fair Courts America.” Kelly is a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent School of Law.

Zoom In: Kelly has boasted that his campaign will spend little, because such groups are going to spend big in the election: “Where you gonna get the other $20 million from? There are these organizations around the country, and they have specific concerns.” That plainly includes right-wing groups counting on him to use the Wisconsin Supreme Court to enforce an 1849 ban on abortion, a law that was passed before women could even vote in the state. 

  • Women Speak Out is like Dick Uihlein in costume, dressing up and amplifying his personal political agenda to destroy access to safe and legal abortion. Other rich, anti-choice men have also thrown their voices through WSO, including Donald Trump’s billionaire backers Robert Mercer, Paul Singer, and Sean Fieler. In turn, WSO has tried to elect numerous extremist politicians to advance this agenda, such as failed Senate candidate Todd Akin, who notoriously claimed “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy. 
  • WSO is an arm of “Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America” (SBA/PLA), a group that is working to punish doctors who perform abortions with up to 15 years in prison. An SBA/PLA spokesperson was caught on tape reiterating their goal – “abortion is illegal, all the time”–as she defended a Tennessee law with no express exceptions for the life or health of the patient, or rape or incest. SBA says it has 32 field organizers in Wisconsin.
  • Its leader has called an exception for rape “abominable” and has backed bills that would limit access to contraception, such as IUDs and morning after pills; plus, she sought to halt fetal tissue research. SBA/PLA has even argued for a right to lie, challenging laws against making false statements about candidates.  
  • SBA/PLA has received at least $5.3 million from groups tied to Leonard Leo, the right-wing money man who picked the U.S. Supreme Court candidates Trump chose from–Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett–and got very rich in the process. It then backed packing the Court to destroy the constitutional protection for abortion access. Back in March 2016, it opposed Merrick Garland’s nomination saying voters should decide, but just weeks before the 2020 election it backed the confirmation of Barrett, who provided the key vote for reversing Roe
  • Another Leo-tied group is also backing Kelly: Students for Life Action. Leo co-chairs Students for Life of America’s Board; his business partner, Greg Mueller, and former Gov. Scott Walker (who installed Kelly on the Court in 2016) are also on its Board. SFL’s “life at conception” bill would ban abortion nationwide, with no exception for rape or incest, and inflict criminal punishment on doctors. Its director, Kristan Hawkins, regularly compares abortion to slavery and Nazi Germany. Its revenues have grown dramatically, including from secret dark money conduits like Donors Trust, one of the vehicles Leo has deployed.
  • Kelly is also backed by three other groups whose objective is to ban abortion access: Wisconsin Family Action, Pro-Life Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Right To Life. 
  • WFA has attacked reproductive choice and marriage equality. It also backed anti-choice activist Judge Brian Hagedorn for Wisconsin’s highest court. He won with the help of the Republican State Leadership Committee via Leo-tied funding.
  • WFA was also embroiled in the bipartisan criminal investigation called John Doe II. It was one of the groups used by then-Gov. Scott Walker’s chief operative RJ Johnson during the 2011-2012 recalls to direct secret money raised by Walker for deposit with the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conduit helmed by Eric O’Keefe. (They denied wrongdoing, and a partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court quashed the probe after justices elected with the help of those investigated refused to recuse.) 
  • WRTL is another group seeking to criminalize abortion. It also had close ties to the Johnson-O’Keefe Wisconsin Club for Growth operation. WRTL has been a key vehicle for the right-wing attack on anti-corruption/clean election laws in Wisconsin through its lawyer, James Bopp, a Hoosier. It was also Bopp who orchestrated the Citizens United litigation that the U.S. Supreme Court used in 2010 to strike down the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a radical 5-4 decision that unleashed billionaires to secretly inject millions into our elections. Bopp is also the primary author of the national RTL “model bill” to ban abortion and abortion pills.
  • The executive director of WRTL told Walker’s judicial selection commission that she supported Kelly’s appointment to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2016 because he “is someone who I have known professionally for many years and who has provided great counsel to Wisconsin Right to Life in legal manners, as well as to a previous employer of mine, and has done great work with the Federalist Society in Wisconsin.” WRTL has asserted that Kelly was not on its payroll so it is unclear who, if anyone, compensated Kelly for his time working on the group’s legal matters, which cases he helped WRTL with, or how many hours Kelly spent aiding WRTL over the years.

The Bottom Line: Billionaire-funded anti-choice groups “with specific concerns” are being counted on by Kelly and are spending big here to advance their extreme agenda–as a consequence, he doesn’t have to raise money subject to donor limits and disclosure. 

  • The biggest groups backing him have been funded to destroy reproductive rights in Wisconsin and across the county by a handful of super-rich men who don’t even live here, such as Dick Uihlein and Leonard Leo.
  • The Wisconsin Republican Party, which is also backing Kelly, is using the Karl Rove playbook of attacking his opponent where he is apparently perceived to be vulnerable. It is trying to muddy the water by claiming his opponent is biased, because she has indicated she would follow legal precedents that have long protected core freedoms.
  • Meanwhile, even though Wisconsinites elected a Democratic governor and Attorney General twice, residents here cannot repeal the regressive 1849 abortion ban, which Leo’s court-packing put in play, because the state legislature has been captured by the GOP’s extreme partisan gerrymandering of election maps, maps that Kelly defended. His backers now want that 174 year-old abortion ban, which has not been enforced for decades, enforced by judicial decree.    

This report has been updated to reflect that a 2016 letter from WRTL documents that Kelly aided WRTL as a lawyer for years before he was appointed by Walker to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where he sat for four years before losing his election bid in 2020.

Curated Resources  

  • Equity Forward, “Susan B. Anthony List Pro-Life America,” (accessed 3/2023). Link 
  • Kavitha Surana, “‘We Need to Defend This Law’: Inside an Anti-Abortion Meeting With Tennessee’s GOP Lawmakers.” ProPublica (November 15, 2022). Link
  • Campaign for Accountability, “Watchdog Calls on IRS to Investigate Anti-Choice Group Susan B. Anthony List for Enriching its Directors and Lying to Federal Officials” (May 28, 2019). Link 
  • Robert O’Harrow and Shawn Boberg, “A Conservative Activist’s Behind-the-Scenes Campaign to Remake the Nation’s Courts,” Washington Post (May 21, 2019). Link
  • Robert O’Harrow, “God, Trump and the Closed-Door World of a Major Conservative Group,” Washington Post Magazine (October 25, 2021). Link 
  • Nick Surgey, “Documented Research on the Council on National Policy Featured in Major Washington Post Investigation,” (Oct. 25, 2021). Link
  • NARAL Pro-Choice America, “What You Need to Know About Trump’s New Anti-Choice Coalition Leader,” (September 16, 2016) Link
  • Evan Vorphal, Julia Peck, and Alyssa Bowen, “Right-Wing Dark Money Is Coming for Reproductive Rights in Your State.” Truthout (June 1, 2022). Link
  • Julia Peck, Evan Vorpahl, and Alyssa Bowen, “Dark Money Fuels the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Push to Control State Legislatures.” Truthout (June 28, 2022). Link
  • Cat Wise, Frank Carlson, Mary Fecteau, “How Anti-Abortion Activists Laid the Groundwork for Rollback of Roe v. Wade,” PBS Newshour (June 16, 2022). Link
  • David Armiak, “Don’t Say Roe,” Exposed by CMD (March 24, 2022). Link
  • Lisa Graves, “This Is Not the Culmination of the Right-Wing Legal Movement–It’s the Dawn of It,” Common Dreams (May 17, 2022). Link
  • Lisa Graves, “Backgrounder on Barre Seid, the Billionaire Extremist who Enabled Leonard Leo to Stack the Court and Overturn Roe,” Washington Spectator (Oct. 31, 2022). Link
  • Lisa Graves, “Two Years After Barrett’s Confirmation, Let’s Be Blunt: The Point Was to Overturn Roe.” Truthout (October 26, 2022). Link
  • David Armiak, “ALEC Opposes Roe, Teams up with Anti-Abortion Extremists.” Exposed by CMD (July 1, 2022). Link
  • Center for Responsive Politcs, “Women Speak Out PAC,” OpenSecrets. Link
  • Sourcewatch, “Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America,” Center for Media and Democracy. Link
  • Sourcewatch, “Judicial Crisis Network,” Center for Media and Democracy. Link
  • Sourcewatch, “Wellspring Committee,” Center for Media and Democracy. Link
  • Sourcewatch, “America Engaged,” Center for Media and Democracy. Link
  • Sourcewatch, “The 85 Fund,” Center for Media and Democracy. Link

Key Documents

  • Students for Life Action 2021 IRS form 990. Link
  • Students for Life of America 2021 IRS form 990. Link
  • Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America 2021 IRS form 990. Link
  • Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America Education Fund 2021 IRS form 990. Link

About this series. Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl have been covering outside spending in state supreme court races since 2019, including in Wisconsin. Graves has lived in Wisconsin for more than a decade and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse before attending Cornell Law School. Vorpahl graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Caitlin Mahoney is a Fellow who earned her degree from the Stevens Institute of Technology. Alyssa Bowen is Managing Editor and holds a PhD in history. True North Research is a national watchdog group, and Graves is the President of the Board of the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, which she previously led for eight years, writing and editing numerous Wisconsin and national stories.

Graves received the Milwaukee Press Club’s “Excellence in Journalism” Award for her coverage of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in 2011. Her investigations of the American Legislative Exchange Council (“ALECexposed”) have won an “Izzy”/I.F. Stone Award and the Association for Education in Journalism’s “Professional Freedom and Responsibility” Award, whose other recipients include Bill Moyers and Molly Ivins–in addition to other honors. 

Graves previously served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy in the U.S. Department of Justice where she worked on judicial nominations, federal and state court relations, and other policies; as the Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee where she handled judicial nominations; as the Deputy Chief of the Article III Judges Division of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, where she advised judges and judicial programs on anti-corruption measures; and other posts. She has testified before Congress about the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Postal Service, FOIA reform, and national security matters.

She is one of the nation’s foremost experts on the infrastructure of right-wing groups, both nationally and in the states, and how their billionaire funders and influence are regressing American public policies and institutions.

Download the report here.

For additional information about this article, please contact Alyssa Bowen via

Leave a Reply

Close Menu