The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has often tried to downplay its ties to hot-button social issues like abortion for fear of spooking its corporate funders. But at its 50th annual meeting in Orlando this week, outlawing abortion is clearly on the docket.
ALEC legislators and others attending the July 26–28 meeting are invited to join operatives from Susan B. Anthony Pro-life America to “discuss the impact of federalism in a post-Dobbs policy environment and state jurisdiction to protect the right to life,” according to the agenda for the three-day meeting.
ALEC is notorious for peddling model legislation to advance pro-corporate legislative priorities such as preventing or overturning environmental regulations, implementing regressive taxes, and kneecapping organized labor — all issues that clearly benefit corporate bottom lines.
But given its close relationship with all sorts of corporate partners, in recent years ALEC has attempted to walk a fine line in its stance on social issues or at least try to spin the press about it. “We’ve had a history of working on other issues like gun rights and social issues and things like that, which has not ended well for ALEC,” ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson told attendees at the right-wing Council for National Policy (CNP) meeting in 2021. Instead, she said, “because of our intersection of business and legislators, we kind of stick to the fiscal issues.” Nelson tried to outsource ALEC’s agenda to make it harder for Americans to vote by supporting external efforts by other dark money groups like the so-called “Honest Elections Project,” for example.
ALEC has tried to highlight business and fiscal interests to insulate the group from losing more corporate funders due to culture war controversies. Even so, the organization’s corporate membership has hemorrhaged in recent years due to sustained public protests against it by government reform, civil rights, labor, and environmental groups. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) maintains a list of corporations and nonprofits that have cut ties with ALEC over the years.
Still, ALEC — whose early leader, the white Evangelical nationalist Paul Weyrich, also launched the Reagan-era Moral Majority — has aided the anti-abortion agenda in numerous ways.
ALEC’s purported pivot away from social issues has forced the organization to promote its anti-abortion policy objectives outside of its well-worn track where legislators vote as equals with lobbyists on model legislation. (Indeed, one of its few anti-abortion model bills, the Parental Consent for Abortion Act, dates from 1985.) To do this, ALEC legislators have helped spawn a number of front groups.
The National Association of Christian Lawmakers (NACL), founded by ALEC member and former Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert (R-35), describes itself as “ALEC from a biblical worldview.” The anti-LGBTQ Christian Nationalist group adopted the highly restrictive Heartbeat Act — which passed in Texas and Arkansas in 2013 — as its first piece of model legislation. The abortion advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America traced the reverberation of copycat bills that subsequently passed in other state houses across the country.
“NACL was the first and only para-legislative organization in the country to adopt the Texas methodology as a model law,” Rapert recently told Rolling Stone, “and we promoted it to be passed in every state.” Rapert actively recruited new members for NACL at ALEC’s 2019 annual meeting.
In 2021, NACL member and Texas State Senator Byran Hughes (R-1) wrote the state’s latest major anti-abortion bill, which calls on all residents of Texas to sue anyone who either seeks or helps others to seek abortion services after the first six weeks of pregnancy (a point at which many people don’t yet realize they are pregnant).
Well before that, two ALEC state legislators in Texas — the group’s then-State Chair Jodie Laubenberg (R-89) and Glenn Hegar (R-18), now the state comptroller bent on preventing Texas businesses from considering climate risk — were behind the 2013 HB 2 legislation. That bill “required all Texas facilities performing abortions to meet hospital-like standards.” Although this law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016, the initial success of HB 2 effectively unleashed a deluge of anti-abortion legislation, with anti-abortion activists using “a strategy of swarming the capitol,” as Rewire reported.
Providing Access to Legislators
ALEC’s opposition to abortion is carefully curated to appear to be a principled matter of federalism. The decades-long push to overturn Roe v. Wade had nothing to do with reproductive rights, this argument goes, but instead was merely to settle a jurisdictional question by returning rightful authority for decisions about abortion access back to the states — where, it should be noted, right-wing dark money groups have successfully consolidated control over some of the court systems ultimately responsible for adjudicating post-Roe lawsuits.
“The Court has properly empowered the duly elected members of each states [sic] legislature with the authority to decide what is best for the citizens of their state,” read an ALEC press release after the Dobbs decision. ALEC member and Virginia State Delegate Kathy Byron (R-22) made the same claim when she wrote in an op-ed in the Daily Caller that “Dobbs has properly moved the debate around protecting life to the elected and accountable members of every state legislature.”
Regardless of how narrowly ALEC spins its public support for Dobbs as an issue of states’ rights, however, the organization has a longstanding policy of giving anti-abortion groups full access to its legislative members.
In March 2022, for example, ALEC invited the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA) — formerly known as Susan B. Anthony List — to train ALEC state legislators on how to talk about abortion during the midterm elections. The mock interview training provided “key takeaways” full of misinformation and lies on a number of topics, including false claims about fetal pain, and compared the constitutional rights protected under Roe to laws in North Korea.
SBA’s leader had previously pointed out that focusing on Roe was counterproductive since Americans overwhelmingly support the constitutional right to reproductive freedom. Under that political calculation, messaging had to pivot to a focus on states’ rights and fetal personhood, as CMD previously reported.
ALEC has also long provided anti-abortion groups such as the Family Research Council (FRC) with access to its legislative members. Immediately following ALEC’s 2021 policy conference, ALEC recommended that its members attend FRC’s Pro-Life Legislative Summit, where lawmakers could “learn how you can advance the best pro-life policies in your state.” In the past, ALEC has also been welcoming to Americans United for Life and Live Action, hard-line anti-abortion groups that have set up shop in ALEC’s convention halls for easy access to distribute its bills to ALEC legislators from across the country.
In 2015, Rep. Chris Taylor, then a Wisconsin state assembly member, noted ALEC’s role in the statewide smear campaign against Planned Parenthood, which was clearly on view at that year’s annual meeting. “Despite the fact that ALEC purports not to address social issues including abortion,” she wrote in reference to the meeting, “on the other side of the convention wall were the national anti-abortion groups exhibiting their model policies and rubber fetuses.”
This year’s 50th annual meeting for ALEC happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Now that that historic decision has been invalidated by the Supreme Court, Orlando will undoubtedly serve as fertile ground for ALEC’s ongoing collaborations to further decimate reproductive rights and freedoms.