U.S. abortion rights threat fuels jump in crypto donations

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 24 May 2022 10:43 GMT

An image from the Computer Cowgirls collection of non fungible tokens (NFT) from Dallas-based artist Molly Dickson to raise funds for abortion access in the United States. Handout picture via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Cryptocurrency donations may offer donors more privacy, but nonprofits could face questions over persistent concerns about the environmental impact and transparency of digital currencies

  • Cryptocurrency donations to charities are surging

  • Abortion rights groups slowly embrace crypto gifts

  • Volatility and transparency among leading concerns

By Rina Chandran

May 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Artist Molly Dickson swung into action when a leaked opinion suggested the U.S. Supreme Court was set to scrap Roe v. Wade, hurrying to pull together a collection of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to raise money for abortion rights groups.

Dallas-based Dickson had already raised about $30,000 for abortion access in Texas following the state's near-total ban by selling a selection of NFTs - digital assets often linked to an image or piece of artwork and bought with cryptocurrency.

With this month's leak suggesting nationwide abortion rights were at risk, Dickson and her partners - Madison Page and Audrey Taylor Akwenye - decided to launch a much larger selection of NFTs with a fundraising target of $3 million.

"When the leak occurred we decided we needed immediate, bold action for pro-choice organisations that help fund abortion access," Dickson and Page, whose collection is called Computer Cowgirls, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

They said a traditional web-based fundraising campaign would have struggled to gain the same amount of interest from donors.

"So much money is pouring into crypto. We get a lot more attention," they said, without specifying how much they had raised since putting the new selection of 10,000 brightly coloured NFTs on sale.

An image from the Computer Cowgirls collection of non fungible tokens (NFT) from Dallas-based artist Molly Dickson to raise funds for abortion access in the United States. Handout picture via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Donations to abortion rights groups in the United States have surged since the publication of the leaked opinion that would strike down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that established the right to abortion.

Increasingly, some of these donations are in cryptocurrency, with contributions of nearly $70 million to nonprofits in 2021 on The Giving Block online platform, a rise of more than 1,000% from the previous year, according to the company.

NFT projects donated more than $12 million to charities via The Giving Block last year, its data showed. The average cryptocurrency donation was also bigger - more than $10,000 - compared to the average online cash donation of $128.

Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin are "well-suited" for abortion rights groups because they offer more privacy than other digital payments, said William Luther, an associate professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University.

"It's especially useful to donors, given the risk of reprisal from anti-abortion activists," said Luther, who researches cryptocurrencies.

UNIQUE RISKS

Cryptocurrencies are increasingly being adopted as an investment and as a hedge against inflation and instability.

Yet they are highly volatile, shedding some $800 billion in market value earlier this month, and more countries are clamping down on them, citing risks to financial stability and consumer protection.

An image from the Computer Cowgirls collection of non fungible tokens (NFT) from Dallas-based artist Molly Dickson to raise funds for abortion access in the United States. Handout picture via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Raising crypto for a cause came into focus earlier this year as Ukraine's government appealed for donations of bitcoin and other digital tokens to help counter the Russian invasion.

UkraineDAO, or decentralised autonomous organisation, raised more than $6 million from the sale of NFTs of the Ukrainian flag. A separate auction of NFTs last week was for medical aid.

Some advocates say that DAOs - where online communities use digital record-keeping technology blockchain to allow members to propose and vote on decisions about how the organisation is run - could be a model for businesses.

Now, Dickson and Page have set up CowgirlDAO to fund abortion rights groups in the United States, with about 200 DAO members voting on proposals for funding and beneficiaries.

"Our inspiration was UkraineDAO," they said.

"We intend to use these mechanics to mobilise a community of pro-choice activists and art collectors through CowgirlDAO."

But only 16% of Americans - most of them men - have experience with cryptocurrencies, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center.

And while NFTs have seen surging interest, with sales exceeding $24 billion in 2021 compared to just under $95 million the year before, there has also been a massive uptick in fraud and growing pushback on environmental and economic concerns.

An image from the Computer Cowgirls collection of non fungible tokens (NFT) from Dallas-based artist Molly Dickson to raise funds for abortion access in the United States. Handout picture via Thomson Reuters Foundation

REPUTATIONAL RISK

While nonprofits including the U.N. children's fund UNICEF and Save the Children accept cryptocurrency donations, most abortion and healthcare providers do not yet accept crypto. Some are beginning to embrace them, however.

Reproductive rights charity International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) said it received a "five-figure" crypto donation earlier this year from a women's startup.

"As crypto continues to be an increasing trend among philanthropists, (IPPF) sees crypto as a catalytic fundraising medium," a spokesperson said.

But organisations considering accepting cryptocurrency donations must consider the "unique risks", Luther said.

"Cryptocurrencies tend to be more volatile than other assets. Organisations accepting cryptocurrencies also face a reputational risk, as they might be accused of supporting money laundering or contributing to climate change," he said.

The unique proposition of the blockchain - where every transaction is immutably preserved and can be traced - poses risks to those getting abortions and to those paying for them, noted Bennett Tomlin, co-host of the podcast Crypto Critics' Corner.

"The end result of transferring funds on a public ledger that is easily surveilled to people who are trying to do dangerous things has a lot of potential externalities," he said.

Still, Dickson and Page said DAOs such as CowgirlDAO can become influential in funding abortion access as they are a "more democratised way" of crowdsourcing resources.

"The community shapes the project on an ongoing basis. And because they have ownership status in the asset collection, the incentive to participate is so much more powerful."

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran in Bangkok @rinachandran; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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