In a flashback to the Reagan era, the Trump administration has proposed a rule that clinics which provide or refer abortion services will be forbidden from receiving federal funding. Federal funding is, of course, not used for abortions, so it might be wondered why this proposal is being advanced.
Proponents of this rule make the not unreasonable argument that could be called the “money pool argument.” The idea is that while a clinic would certainly have distinct components to its budget and would presumably not directly allocate federal funds to abortion, the federal funding does end up in the total pool of money available to the clinic. To use an analogy to a pool of water, the budgetary divisions would be like lines painted on the bottom of the pool, dividing it into zones. While each zone is distinct, the water flows freely throughout the pool. Returning to the federal funding, the idea is that the money flows throughout the financial pool and thus ends up funding abortion services and referrals—the budgetary walls are mere “paint” and do not provide a real division of money.
Another, more direct, analogy is that of a college student receiving money from their parents. Imagine that the parents know the student is, contrary to their wishes, legally buying alcohol. While the student might argue that they only spend the money from their part-time job on beer, the parents would be right to point out that the money they provide enables their child to buy things they do not want them buying. As such, it would be quite reasonable for the parents to require the student to stop spending their money on beer with the penalty for non-compliance being no more parental money.
Alternatively, the parents could simply pay the tuition and other educational expenses directly and leave the other expenses to the student, thus leaving their money untainted with alcohol purchases. This alternative is, however, subject to the objection that the student would thus be free to still buy beer because of the parental support—despite the fact that none of their money is being spent directly on beer. Going back to the abortion clinics, the worry is that even if the clinics do not spend any federal money on abortions because it is directly spent on other services (such as ultrasounds for expectant mothers), federal funding for anything the clinic does will free up money that could be used for abortion services or referrals. As such, while not even a single penny of federal money goes to abortion, the moral worry is that the federal money used to fund non-abortions services allows abortion services to be provided.
To use another analogy, this is like the worry that federal food stamp money (now SNAP) received by people who drink alcohol allows them to drink because some of their food is paid for. Presumably the idea in both cases is to use the threat of defunding to force the drinker and the clinics to behave in accord with the moral values of those who regard such behavior as wrong, even though drinking and abortion are both legal.
Since the moral foundation of the opposition to federal funding is based on the notion that federal money should not be used to fund things people find morally wrong, this indirect argument is rather problematic. After all, it is one thing to argue that one’s money should not be used directly for something one morally opposes (like war, abortion, or corporate welfare), it is quite another to argue that one’s money should not even have an indirect association to something one regards as morally wrong. The moral challenge is sorting out the boundaries of legitimate moral concern. For example, if the principle was that not public money should be connected in any way to activities seen as immoral, then funding for public roads could be seen as morally problematic because people drive over them to reach abortion clinics. While this is absurd, that is the point: there are clear cases in which the moral objection to public funding would be absurd. The question is whether the funding of non-abortion services at clinics that also provides abortions is morally problematic enough to warrant defunding them. On my view, the role of federal money in enabling abortion services would be too distant to justify defunding the clinics on moral grounds. Of course, those that disagree would contend that even though not a single penny of their money went to abortion, they are still enabling abortion because the clinics receive funding for non-abortion services. To me, this seems like insisting that poor people who buy beer with their own money should be denied food stamps because this enables them to be able to buy beer—it is demanding too much on the basis of what seems to be more self-righteousness than moral concern. Then again, it might be something else—which is the subject of the next essay.