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A Controversial Use of Taxpayer Funds

The health care reform bill currently being debated in the United States has re-ignited controversy there over abortion, and in particular over the availability of federal government funding to pay for the procedure. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives version of the health care bill passed narrowly, and with a last minute amendment that will restrict provision of abortions. The so-called “Stupak amendment” says that no health care plans receiving any subsidy from the federal government may offer abortions, except in the case where abortion is the result of rape, incest, or to save the woman’s life, and it maintains this restriction even if the government subsidies are kept separate from the private payments made into the plans, and no government subsidy is ever used to pay for abortions. The Stupak amendment represents a tightening over existing policy, according to which the federal government is prohibited from directly funding the provision of abortions, but may provide funds for hospitals, for example, that also provide abortions – so long as the hospitals pay for the abortions themselves by some other means.

The argument for Stupak’s additional restrictions on abortion funding is supposed to be that since money is fungible, the old prohibition does not really work to prevent federal funds indirectly playing a role in providing for abortions. Whatever the merits of this argument, it’s worth noting that many of its proponents in congress make it hypocritically; they are more than willing to accept generous campaign contributions drawn from the profits of health insurance companies that provide insurance for abortions as a component of their plans. But I want to focus here on the question of having any restriction of this kind at all. Can the federal government legitimately be prohibited from funding abortion?

One argument is that they should be so prohibited, because many taxpayers object to the procedure, and taxpayers have a right not to have their money used for what they regard as immoral ends. But if this is the argument, then why should environmentalists let their taxes be used to fund expensive road and bridge projects, rather than the public transportation that they would prefer? Why should pacifists let their taxes be used to fund the military? Why should libertarians let their taxes be used for pretty much anything, other than the military? It is easy to see that allowing individual taxpayers to dictate where their taxes may or may not be used, or to veto public projects, would make running the country unmanageable.

It might be replied that there’s an important difference in the respective claims of the parties. In the case of abortion, it might be argued that it is not just that taxpayers object that matters, but rather that they have an objection is objectively morally valid. Since abortion is tantamount to murder, of course the federal government should play no role in providing for it. No doubt many anti-abortion campaigners think along these lines, but they must nevertheless acknowledge a political problem with their answer. Others believe equally strongly that making abortion difficult to obtain violates women’s rights. And similarly, pacifists may be convinced that they have an objectively valid moral objection to funding the military. The political problem is that since there are no neutral judges to resolve such disputes, allowing the thought that one’s objection is objectively morally valid to ground a veto would lead to a practical tyranny of the majority.

Another possible reply is that only religiously based objections should be taken seriously, as these represent deep commitments to particular ways of life. But religious commitments aren’t the only kind of deep commitments people are capable of. Atheists can certainly have their own deep moral commitments and value commitments. In any case, just allowing for religious vetoes could itself lead to chaos. Jehovah’s Witnesses could object to their taxes being used to fund blood transfusions, the Amish to their being used for research and technology. On some religious views, no elected government could possibly be legitimate, so adherents of these views would have to be allowed to opt out of everything.

The philosopher John Rawls offered a different and more promising formula for helping to resolve deep disputes of this kind, in terms of what he called “public reason”. Rawls’s basic thought was this: in our democratic society, we find ourselves in many deep and probably irresolvable disagreements about the nature of the good. But we could, if we are reasonable, all agree on having a state that is set up to enable each to pursue his or her chosen comprehensive conception of the good. There are a bunch of things that people will want whatever else they want: the primary goods that are instrumental to their achievement of any conception of the good they may prefer, such as liberties, and income and wealth. So we should work on principles we can agree on for creating and distributing the primary goods fairly. Rawls suggested that in order to make agreement possible in the public square, we should leave our comprehensive conceptions of the good at home, and argue only on the basis of matters that we can reasonably agree on, such as those values that we can draw from the aim of creating a society in which each has access to primary goods. Rawls’s conception of public reason effectively turns us into the neutral judges we need to adjudicate political disputes that stem from differing comprehensive conceptions of the good. Rawls’s framework may or may not provide for a decisive answer on questions about funding abortion, but it does insist that policies are debated on the grounds of public reasons alone.

A more radical suggestion, perhaps, but one which appeals to me, is that morality itself is fundamentally a practice that plays the role of helping us get along with each other, and that therefore morality itself must consist in a set of principles or judgments that could be the subject of rational agreement. While this claim may conflict with the conception of morality as ordained by God that many religious people hold, the ancient “Euthyphro question” produces a dilemma which decisively refutes that view. The conception of morality as a practice aimed at agreement entails that to the extent that people’s moral and political principles rest on articles of faith, and to the extent that their adherents find this to be sufficient justification of them, their adherents are simply confused about the nature of morality. We couldn’t possibly be expected to agree with their “moral” claims, because as everybody knows: which articles of faith you find worthy of acceptance largely depend on which society and family you happened to be brought up in. This more radical view has one particular advantage over Rawls’s: it does not require anyone to leave behind any of their deeply held moral views when they come to the debate at the political table. What it does require is that they provide a genuine public justification of them. Whether abortion is deeply immoral must depend not on what it says in anybody’s religious tradition, but on whether we could all, if we were rational, be brought to agree that it is. Absent some reasonably good evidence of this, we should not try to restrict our governments from funding it.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Did my earlier post not get through or was it too much of a rant?

    Anyway first there are secular reasons not for allowing general abortions, which gets lost in the culture wars.

    Also since there is a good chance in the future that public health won’t pay for negative lifestyle choices that could easily be avoided, it isn’t a stretch to see abortion in this light. Certainly many object to paying for fertility treatment for women who chose their career over having a baby when they were younger.

    Lastly if as I argued in my earlier post abortion is an identity issue, so no ammount of evidence or logic will change the mind of either side in this debate. More likely it will come through hindsight once a cultural paradigm shift has occurred.

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