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.