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How the group behind the Supreme Court abortion drug case is expanding its fight globally

Group behind abortion drug case goes global
Group behind abortion drug case goes global 02:25

London — British anti-abortion activist Isabel Vaughn-Spruce says she wasn't protesting when she stood silently in a protected zone outside an abortion clinic near her church in Birmingham, England.

"I internally reasoned that surely my silent thoughts should still be allowed to happen inside that zone. My prayers. So I went and silently prayed outside the abortion center, initially just when it was closed, and I was arrested because of that, twice," Vaughn-Spruce told CBS News.

U.K. law establishes protected zones around abortion clinics. They are meant to shield women seeking care from protesters. The zone boundaries are marked by signs around facilities that provide abortion services. 

Abortion rights groups in the U.K. have said that silent prayer outside of abortion clinics amounts to harassment for the women seeking care. 

Rachael Clarke, chief of staff of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the U.K.'s leading provider of abortion services, told CBS News partner network BBC News in November that silent prayer caused "the vast majority of distress, alarm and harassment" for women entering abortion clinics. 

Vaughn-Spruce said that, upon her arrest, she reached out to a legal group with American roots — Alliance Defending Freedom International — for help. In the end, she was not convicted of any offenses.

"Standing up for these issues and for freedoms, whether that's in America or any other country, essentially that's still the same. So the roots of an organization, in a way, whether it's American or English, doesn't really make any difference to me," Vaughn-Spruce said. "The work that [ADF] are doing has been absolutely tremendous." 

What is Alliance Defending Freedom?

ADF International U.K. is a registered charity in Britain that is supported by donations from ADF in the United States, according to its financial disclosures.

ADF, launched in 1994 and, boasting a network of over 4,500 attorneys, describes itself as "one of the leading Christian law firms committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, marriage and family, parental rights, and the sanctity of life." 

It provides legal support to people whose cases are in line with its causes.

ADF lawyers argued on behalf of the plaintiffs who sought a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would have restricted access to the widely used abortion pill mifepristone across the country, but the court rejected their argument in a ruling handed down Thursday, upholding access to the drug. The group also supported the Mississippi case that eventually went to the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade

Supreme Court of the United States
Lorie Smith, a Christian graphic artist and website designer in Colorado, center in pink, accompanied by her lawyer, Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom, center bottom, walk out of the Supreme Court on Dec. 5, 2022, following arguments in a suit filed by Smith, who refused to create websites for same-sex weddings. Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

ADF says it has played a role in at least 74 Supreme Court victories in total and represented 15 parties that won victories at America's highest court.

ADF's fast-growing international operations

"I think Americans know very, very little about what these American organizations are exporting in terms of rights-stripping policies into other countries," Heidi Beirich, founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told CBS News. "What's happening is a very powerful, far-right movement built on targeting particular communities is emerging, and that's affecting the human rights of people all across the world."

Beirich previously worked as an expert in extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which listed ADF as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group in 2016.

The SPLC says it made that designation because ADF, "has supported the idea that being LGBTQ+ should be a crime in the U.S. and abroad and believes that [it] is OK to put LGBTQ+ people in prison for engaging in consensual sex. It has also supported laws that required the forced sterilization of transgender Europeans." 

An ADF International U.K. representative told CBS News that the group rejects the hate group characterization.

ADF International has established offices in European power centers including Geneva, Brussels, Strasbourg and London.

"It brings litigation at the European Court of Human Rights. They're active in Latin America," Beirich said. "I'm talking millions of dollars are going into their efforts to, not just change the United States towards their Christian nationalist vision, but now other countries, including the United Kingdom and the EU." 

According to its financial records from 2022 to 2023, ADF International's U.K. branch saw its income increase in that one-year period by 514,729 British pounds (about $655,036) to 1,068,552 ($1,360,079). Its expenditure also increased by 220,751 pounds ($280,982) over the same period to 993,118 ($1,264,090).

According to the group's financial disclosures, that money was used to provide legal analysis and briefs to several members of the U.K. Parliament, engage in public commentary, and "assist those who may be prevented from living and worshiping in accordance with Christian principles and ethics whether by, for example, engaging at a local level or with significant decision-makers."

ADF boasts ties to some of the most prominent conservative names in the American political landscape.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson is a former attorney for the group. While working for ADF, Johnson lobbied unsuccessfully for a 2004 Louisiana ballot measure that would have banned same-sex marriage, according to The Associated Press. In a 2003 op-ed for a local Louisiana newspaper, Johnson wrote that homosexuality was an "abnormal lifestyle" and "dangerous sexual conduct." In the byline of the piece, Johnson is identified as an attorney for Alliance Defense Fund, the former name of Alliance Defending Freedom. 

Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett also gave at least five paid speeches between 2011 and 2015 to the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, a program for young conservative lawyers that is run and funded by ADF. 

During  her 2020 confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barrett was quizzed over her ties to the group. When asked when she knew that the Blackstone Legal Fellowship was run by ADF, Barrett replied: "To the best of my recollection, I learned that ADF funded the Blackstone program either when I received the honorarium for my presentation, or maybe when I saw the signature line in an email." 

Barrett told the committee she had "no specific knowledge" of decades-long efforts by the ADF against LGBTQ+ rights, including opposition to same sex marriage.

ADF's global operations

ADF International originally agreed to offer a spokesperson for an interview with CBS News, but canceled twice at the last minute and then pulled out entirely. When CBS News then sent questions to the group, it responded with a four-paragraph statement that said: "Despite baseless claims from those who disagree with our values, there's nothing unusual about the money we receive — we comply with all rules set out by charity regulators."  

"Our UK office is staffed by local team members working to uphold human rights in Britain — including, among others, free speech and freedom of religion," the statement said. "As a global organization, we receive funds from many different countries, as do many UK charities on both sides of the abortion debate."

Beirich said Americans should be aware of ADF's activities overseas because of how effective the group has been at helping to get laws changed through the courts in the U.S.

"This is an organization that wins, and they leverage the courts to get their policies in place," she told CBS News. "We should really be paying attention to them, because they've fundamentally changed American society already with these rulings, and the same can happen in other places."

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