The Trump administration is endeavoring to make good on a campaign about abortion. The current proposal is to require a physical and financial wall between clinics that receive federal funding and those that provide abortion services or referrals. Clinics can, however, still provide counseling about abortion—the restriction is on performing abortions and referrals. This proposal resembles a requirement that existed during the Reagan administration, one that passed legal muster in the past. As such, if the proposal becomes a law, it will almost certainly resist any legal challenges against it. In a way, it is a law trying to solve a problem that does not really exist: there is no federal funding of abortion. That said, the proposal is still subject to philosophical examination.
One point of concern is a moral justification of the law, which is similar to that put forth by Henry David Thoreau in his essay “Civil Disobedience.” The point of his argument is that the state has no moral right to compel people to pay taxes to fund things, such as a war, that they regard as morally wrong. Interestingly, Thoreau seems to propose a pay-as-you-go system in which people pay for the services they use, such as roads, and those they wish to support, such as public schools. This sort of reasoning has considerable appeal—compelling a person to fund an activity they morally oppose makes the person a party to what they regard as evil, which is at least morally problematic. There is also the obvious concern about the use of the compulsive power of the state to force the person to provide resources to the state against their will. Thoreau was, after all, an anarchist and hence this view of the state is consistent with that philosophical commitment.
One obvious problem with applying Thoreau’s argument to the anti-abortion law in question is that the law does not exempt anti-abortion people from having their funds directed towards abortions. Rather, it forbids federal money in general. As such, the principle in play would seem to be that federal money should not be used to fund activities that citizens morally oppose. While this does have some moral appeal, it seems to lead directly to absurdity: there are certainly some citizens who oppose almost anything that receives federal dollars. To use Thoreau’s example, many people morally oppose war—so this would entail that wars should not be funded. There are those who oppose social programs and public schools; so those should not be funded. There are, of course, those who oppose the police and INS. As such, they should also not receive federal funds. The end result, which would certainly please an anarchist, would be the elimination of the federal government due to its inability to spend money on activities, goods and services that some citizens oppose.
The concern could be countered by requiring a threshold for a ban on the use of federal funding on moral grounds. In the case of abortion, 57% of Americans say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases while 40% take the opposing view. As such, the threshold could be set at 40% or lower and thus the principle could be applied consistently. Naturally, the same standard would need to be applied to all federal spending otherwise the law would lose moral legitimacy on the grounds of inconsistent application. However, a problem would still remain: this approach would deny those who support the federal spending in question from having their tax dollars spent as they wish. In the case of abortion, this proposed law defers to the moral sentiments of the abortion opponents while rejecting the moral views of the pro-choice citizens. The easy and obvious counter is to argue that the pro-choice citizens could spend their own money, on top of their taxes, to make up for the loss of funding resulting from the proposal.
While this does have some appeal, it does seem somewhat unfair: the pro-choice citizens have to pay over and above their taxes to support programs they agree with simply because the state is favoring the minority who oppose such funding. The question then turns to the matter of which burden is worse: an anti-abortion person knowing that some microscopic percentage of their tax money ends up funding non-abortion services at a clinic that also offers abortion services or referrals or the burden of pro-choice citizens needing to spend their money to ensure that the services they support remain funded. Naturally, the answer must be applied consistently regardless of the specific funding in question. So, for example, if enough Americans opposed federal support for corporations or the funding of the NSA, then people who supported such spending would need to provide their own money to fund them.
Mike, I’m curious why you seem so interested in abortion of late. Do you think that abortion laws are going to be changed?
Also, in order to understand the anti-abortion position, you have to realize that they view abortion in the same way that abolitionists viewed slavery. Do you think the abolitionists should have compromised on slavery to avoid a civil war?
It’s the go-to thing for leftists. It has been my observation over the decades that when the left feels it’s losing, the hive instinctively knows that their always reliable fallback position is to raise as much chatter as possible about abortion.
Michael LaBossiere says
My honest answer is that I am working through my own moral views of the matter. I used to be a non-reflective pro-choice person, but realized that was intellectually lazy.
“…it does seem somewhat unfair: the pro-choice citizens have to pay over and above their taxes to support programs they agree with simply because the state is favoring the minority who oppose such funding.”
First of all, you have very slyly conflated a couple of arguments here … earlier in your post you said,
“In the case of abortion, 57% of Americans say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases while 40% take the opposing view.”
You then change the argument from “legal” to “funded”, presumably (and wrongly) assuming that those who favor legal abortion also favor funding. That’s a big stretch – I am one of those who agrees with Roe v. Wade in its premise and attempt to compromise, yet I oppose any and all federal funding for it. I wonder how many of the 57% agree with me?
Second, you say,
“it does seem somewhat unfair: the pro-choice citizens have to pay over and above their taxes to support programs they agree with simply because the state is favoring the minority who oppose such funding.
Are you saying that any time citizens agree with programs they should be federally funded? I have the constitutional right to own firearms – are you saying that this right should be funded by the government, and they should offset the cost of my purchase?
Funding is “active participation”. It requires agreement, acceptance, commitment. On the other hand, to leave the law alone and choose not to fund is not “favoring the minority”. The result might be more beneficial to that minority, but it doesn’t mean that the government has made an active choice – except to stay out of the fray. It is a passive position.
Our government specializes in compromise. It is not designed to regulate morality or to say that one group is right and another wrong. Our laws on abortion represent that kind of compromise – allowing a woman to have unrestricted choice regarding abortion until a point at which the State would advocate for the life of the unborn. This works for about 98.5% of the population – as I have said repeatedly in other posts. To draw the line at funding is just part of this compromise – “Go ahead and do exactly as you please – but do not ask others to pay for it”
In this country, the government does actively support all kinds of charities, non-profit entities and programs without making any moral judgement at all – it’s called a “Tax Deduction”. A great example of this kind of support is the NRA, whose revenues are 100% private donations. They offer safety clinics,education, political action, events, training and much more – all without a dime of federal contribution. As such, they are not beholden to the government for anything, and are free to do as they please.
Planned Parenthood received $528 million in government revenue last year, and $392 million in private donations. If this entity is so important to so many people, I am baffled by the thought that by pulling the $528 million in funding they would have to close. I’ve said it before – I think that if this ever became a reality the Rosie O’Donnel’s and Oprah Winfrey’s, Gates’, Spielbergs, and all the other wealthy celebrities who are so outspoken about choice could put their money behind their voices and double that $528 million without feeling any pain at all. I think that a huge part of the rancor and hatred among those who disagree on this point would just shrivel up and die.
One thing I don’t understand – the federal government contributed $528 million to Planned Parenthood in the form of medicare and medicaid reimbursements – and Planned Parenthood in return donated $671 million to federal candidates during the 2016 election cycle (almost 100% to Democrats, by the way). This does not sound right to me. If Planned Parenthood were to refrain from making any political donations at all, and the government were to refrain from making any reimbursements to the organization, PP would be about $150 million to the good, that they could use to reimburse patients who would otherwise have been the recipients of government assistance. How does this work, exactly?
Michael LaBossiere says
Good point; it is right to point out that people who accept abortion as legal can also oppose paying for it with federal money.
That said, if the principle is that if X% of taxpayers morally oppose Y, then Y should not get federally funding, the question remains as to what X% should be. Since most Americans seem okay with abortion being legal, then X% would need to be well under 50%.
I’m not sure exactly what you mean – but I generally oppose any active government involvement in any controversial issue where morality is the primary motivator. It doesn’t really come down to a percentage for me – that just gets way too messy. Abortion clearly falls into this category – for the government to make a legal allowance for people who support it, while not forcing others to support it against their will seems to be an effective compromise – maximizing freedom on both sides of the issue while avoiding the issue of making it some kind of “national policy”.
For the government to begin codifying morality and supporting that code with tax obligations is a slippery slope, bound to create more problems than it solves. Prohibition is a pretty good example. Another good example is government support for research involving fetal stem cells – the government really has no business telling half the country they are morally “wrong”; it is best to just stay out of it. And as I pointed out before – “staying out” is not the same thing as “siding with the opposition” The opportunities for private funding still exist, as does the tax incentive for those who choose to donate.
I don’t think it’s the government’s job to act on issues of morality – there are too many opposing views and too much potential for the kind of anger, hatred and political rancor that we have on this issue. Our laws have traditionally been about compromise when individuals’ morals, points of view, or civil rights are in conflict with one another. It’s not really about finding a national moral compass – it’s more about finding ways in which we can all get along by understanding and accepting what others choose to do.