Silicon Valley’s Abortion Schemes & Buffett’s Clinton Hire

The Buffetts
Photo: Michael S. Williamson/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
July 12, 2022

On Monday evening, a San Francisco OB-GYN named Meg Autry went on Rachel Maddow’s primetime program to float an imaginative, radical, and characteristically Silicon Valley solution to the Supreme Court stripping away abortion access across the South. What if, like Peter Thiel’s plans for a seasteading institute in international waters, donors built an abortion clinic that floated permanently in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where women could travel for reproductive healthcare if unable to escape red states by land? The novel project, which Autry has been pitching to philanthropists, has an estimated $20 million initial price tag—for the retrofitted boat, for the staff, and naturally, for maritime lawyers to defend it in court.

It’s easy to caricature Autry’s proposal as a Google-esque moonshot, the sort of pie-in-the-sky thinking that scratches an itch for otherwise powerless philanthropists at a time when they are desperate for ideas to secure abortions in a post-Roe world. There are large parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas where it may be easier to reach an offshore medical facility than traveling hundreds of miles by car. “California has some big donors that are very interested,” Autry told me. “We’re prepared for these big donors, and we’re answering these calls right now.”

The challenge that many philanthropists I talk to are trying to solve is how to protect emergency access to someone who needs to get an abortion today. Autry’s entry into this frenzy, called PRROWESS, is the latest in what has been a philanthropic scramble in recent weeks, at least in Silicon Valley, by Democrats to ascertain what they can do, as private citizens, to help. Away founder Jen Rubio and her husband, Slack C.E.O. Stewart Butterfield, are collecting $2 million for abortion funds. Gretchen Sisson, an uber-well connected fundraiser for Democratic candidates and women’s causes in San Francisco, just unveiled $2 million in rapid-response money that she has raised to pay for abortions. 

All of this organizing reflects an important shift in the abortion funding landscape. Because the reality is that, however progressive the liberal-philanthropic world may be, donors historically have not funded abortions. Women’s health broadly? Sure. Political organizations focused on Washington fights like EMILY’s List and NARAL? Yep. But funding abortions themselves has always been a sensitive topic for the philanthropic sector, in part because it might put risk-adverse foundations in the cross-hairs of the conservative movement. For instance, between 2015 and 2019, private foundations only spent $1.7 billion on reproductive health projects, most of which went to organizations like Planned Parenthood, which mostly right now do lobbying and advocacy. Only 2 percent of that money was for funds to pay for abortions, per the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

The singular exception to that trend has been Warren Buffett, who has quietly spent some $4 billion on all of its reproductive health work over the last 20 years, through a foundation named after his late wife, Susan Buffett. Warren is, by far, the largest sponsor of abortions (although, given the backlash, his team always refuses to talk about his abortion work). Buffett is 91, and there is widespread fear about what happens to the abortion funding and his family foundation after his lifetime—more on that in a moment.

All of this has fueled concern among sources I talk to about just how underfunded the sector has been, and what might happen when Buffett is gone. By way of example, one fundraiser I spoke with this week brought up MacKenzie Scott, whose $275 million donation to Planned Parenthood is the organization’s largest gift ever. “I am furious because none of that money that she spent is actually helping people get abortions right now,” the fundraiser told me. “She’s not keeping open any independent clinics. And that’s what’s frustrating to me. Little of the big money that’s being spent is being spent in a way that either helps meet the moment or creates long-term donor involvement in this space, which is what we need. We need another Warren Buffett.”

A Clinton Adviser’s Latest Act

A few more notes on the battle over Buffett’s fortune. A Wall Street Journal story made some waves the other week by suggesting that Buffett, Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge philanthropic sidekick and bridge partner, might spurn the Gates Foundation upon his death by directing tens of billions of dollars to the foundation bearing the name of his late wife, instead.

So there are, understandably, a lot of eyes on the Susan T. Buffett Foundation right now, but the foundation is famously not transparent—because of its abortion work, it doesn’t talk about its staff, have a detailed website, or respond to questions, except about scholarships it offers to Nebraska students. But I have learned about an intriguing person advising the Buffett foundation on a project as this inflection point and as it prepares for a possible huge influx of cash. That would be Ira Magaziner, a close confidante of Bill Clinton for five decades ever since they were Rhodes Scholars together back at Oxford. Magaziner achieved a national profile as the chief architect of the former president’s healthcare plan during the 1990s knife-fight alongside Hillary, which of course would make him a part of Clinton stories and conspiracies for decades. After Bill left office, Clinton and Magaziner co-founded the Clinton Health Access Initiative, a now heavily Gates-funded part of the Clinton philanthropy orbit, which Magaziner led in a somewhat controversial tenure before stepping down in 2019.

Now, three decades after his drag-out fight with Congress over Hillarycare, I’m told that Magaziner has the ear of another ambitious player in healthcare—he is helping steer a new project, on behalf of the Susan T. Buffet Foundation and other donors, focused on how to partner with governments in Africa to offer a suite of health services to their poor like sexual and reproductive health (an emphasis of STBF), preventative care and access to basic drugs, I am told. There are many people who advise the Buffett Foundation, but few who have Ira’s profile. While I don’t know how much of the Buffett fortune will eventually go toward this Magaziner project, it is worth peeling back the onion to see the folks involved in making these decisions, given the tens of billions of dollars that the philanthropy may inherit over the next decade or so.

Thiel’s $50k Grip-and-Grin

Speaking of Thiel and seasteading, how much would you pay to get a few minutes with Thiel, the it-boy donor in G.O.P. politics these days? An invitation for the annual gala for the Pacific Research Institute, a pro-free-markets California think tank, made its way to me over the weekend, and the group is advertising Thiel as its headliner (in a conversation with conservative thought leader Steven Hayward), plus a buffet of options that buy you access to the man himself.

It is typical for a fundraiser to have a so-called “clutch” before an event, during which donors can pay extra to press the flesh with a candidate, and of course leave with a photo for their “me wall.” But few things demonstrate the right’s utter fascination and obsession with Thiel than the $50,000 price tag to spend a few minutes with a donor

As little as $2,000 gets you access to the “V.I.P. reception with Peter Thiel,” per the invite. The top-of-line ticket price includes the “Private pre-reception roundtable conversation with Peter Thiel for up to ten (10) guests,” plus the V.I.P. reception. The Thiel event obviously isn’t subject to contribution limits, since it’s not for a campaign, but I was humored that the event has a higher top-of-line entry price than another Bay Area fundraiser invitation I just saw, this one hosted by Nancy Pelosi, for “the D.C.C.C. Ultimate Women’s Power Luncheon and Issues Conference” on October 7 in San Francisco. Pelosi considers you a V.I.P. for only $36,500, the federal max for donations to the group.

Will Bijan Sabet Win Prague?

I will cop to not regularly reading the Czech newspaper of record, Lidovsky. But my Google Alerts recently pulled in an intriguing headline there regarding Bijan Sabet, the semi-retired venture capitalist who I flagged last September as someone to watch in political fundraising. Per Lidovsky, Sabet is likely the top candidate to become the next U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic—one of the most desirable European postings, if he gets it.

I’ve since confirmed that his name is being bandied about for an ambassadorship. Sabet, as Silicon Valley veterans or readers of Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter will remember, an early investor and board member at Twitter, helping steer the company through its most tumultuous period of corporate governance (until this year, anyway). An avid photographer living near Boston, Bijan last year stepped back from the firm he co-founded, Spark Capital, and planned to spend much of his time on Democratic fundraising—he bundled for Biden, sits on the Democratic National Committee’s Finance Committee, and is an in-demand donor for outside groups. If Bijan gets Prague, it will be another somewhat-rare breakthrough for the Democratic donor community when it comes to securing the bag that is an ambassadorship.

On Monday, the White House announced some new diplomats—to Papua New Guinea and Tajikistan, Armenia and Mauritius, but no Prague. Wither Bijan? Some people involved in the ambassadorship game say it depends on timing and if Republicans take the Senate. “Honestly, if he or any nominee doesn’t get voted in by the August recess I think the odds of getting confirmed post-election are slim to none,” said one Democratic consultant working with some potential fundraisers-turned-envoys. “The donors I’m working with are pushing very hard to get [confirmations] done between now and the recess, since they know that the G.O.P. will stonewall all nominees going forward. More than they already have.”