More Buffett Money Likely Headed to Pro-Choice Groups

Billionaire Warren Buffett will give part of his fortune to a foundation set up in his late wife's name, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation. The foundation, which gives money to pro-choice organizations and projects, has had a small budget. People on both sides of the abortion debate are wondering what effect the new money will have.

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While the vast majority of Warren Buffett's fortune will go to the Gates Foundation, about $3 billion will go to the foundation named for his late wife, Susan Thompson Buffett. That foundation has operated quietly over the years, and it's been a major funder of abortion rights related causes.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports what the bequest could mean for abortion politics.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

You mean you didn't know Warren Buffett's foundation has been funding abortion rights organizations? Well, that's just the way the Buffets wanted it.

Ms. FRANCES KISSLING (President, Catholics For A Free Choice): It has never been the kind of place that has sought publicity.

ROVNER: Frances Kissling is president of the abortion rights group, Catholics For A Free Choice, which is one of the foundation's grantees. Speaking on her cell phone from a New York airport, Kissling said the low profile the Buffett Foundation has pursued belies its influence.

Ms. KISSLING: The amount of money that the Buffett Foundation has had to invest in reproductive rights, and including abortion rights, has been substantial. And has, therefore, played a leading role in supporting these efforts.

ROVNER: For example, it funded research on the abortion pill, RU-486. It's also funded numerous programs to train doctors to perform abortions, both specialist obstetrician/gynecologists and family practitioners.

Ellen Chesler, an author and board member at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says that proved a literal lifeline for abortion rights.

Ms. ELLEN CHESLER (Author; Board Member, Planned Parenthood Federation of America): Because it's trained a whole new generation of doctors to perform abortion at a time when the first pioneering generation of doctors, who did it out of a sense of moral obligation, is retiring and not being replaced.

ROVNER: The Buffett Foundation has also funded direct advocacy activities through groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Ms. CHESLER: Because, I think, there was an understanding that politically we needed to bolster our side of a debate, which was being heavily influenced by a huge amounts of money being poured into conservative institutions that were opposing abortion rights and family planning. And so they've become a provider of policy money, as well as money for research and training.

ROVNER: Still, Chesler concedes that there was some discomfort in the abortion rights movement yesterday. Primarily because the Gates Foundation, which is getting the bulk of the Buffett fortune, does not fund abortion rights activities.

Ms. CHESLER: They have been shyer of abortion rights funding, because of a philosophical and ideological, you know, concern.

ROVNER: The Gates Foundation does, however, fund family planning and sex education programs, which has earned it some opposition from social conservatives. And the more overtly abortion rights oriented Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation will still see its endowment doubled. But it will be a while before it's clear how or whether the gifts will alter the abortion debate.

Jeff Krehely is the Deputy Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a foundation watchdog group.

Mr. JEFF KREHELY (Deputy Director, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy): It will have some impact. Again, it depends on how the organizations that receive the money are using it, whether it is just to kind of expand services that they do, public education. Or will it be used for more policy related work? If it's for the latter, you know, it could have a very large impact in changing this policy debate.

ROVNER: And it couldn't come at a more contentious time in the abortion debate. It was the Buffett Foundation that funded early lawsuits that led to the Supreme Court striking down a Nebraska State abortion ban six years ago. Congress has challenged that decision by passing the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The Supreme Court will consider that case this fall.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

STAMBERG: With the Buffett donation, the Gates Foundation endowment doubles. At npr.org, public health experts debate whether it's a problem to have so much money concentrated in one place.

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