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Give Me Your Money and Your Conscience

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Planned Parenthood almost closed down the U.S. government last week. A stalemate over the tax-funding of the abortion-provider almost prevented a budget deal needed to keep federal doors open. Ultimately, the Republicans tabled their demand to defund Planned Parenthood; only then did the stopgap budget move forward. That is how powerful the issue of abortion and taxes has become.

The weighty stalemate will almost certainly occur again. The federal government is expected to reach its debt limit in mid-May and, then, once more the begging bowl will be passed around Congress. Before approving a debt limit, however, House Speaker John Boehner has made it clear that Republicans want substantial concessions, probably including the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Moreover, there are least three bills currently before Congress to cut abortion funding: Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act (HR 217); No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (HR 3); and, “Protect Life Act” (HR 358). The issue of tax-funded abortions is not going away.

This article makes no comment on the morality of abortion. Rather, it explores an intriguing sub-theme on taxes within the anti-abortion argument. The sub-theme is: those who consider abortion to be murder should not be forced to violate their consciences by financially supporting the abortions with their tax dollars. As a matter of conscience, they should be allowed to choose. On this point, the anti-abortionists accuse the other side of hypocrisy. That is, by refusing to allow abortion objectors to withdraw support, the pro-choice movement is violating its own core principle: choice. This is a powerful point and a compelling criticism.

To those who champion autonomy, like me, the violation-of-conscience argument has automatic pull; people should not be forced to pay for programs they condemn. This was a clear theme in the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call for Christian Conscience” (November 2009) that was signed by approximately 150 Religious Right leaders and anti-abortion activists. The last paragraph states,

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act….We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

Three days later, signatory Dr. James Dobson explained on his Family Talk radio program,

I don’t say this glibly at all…. Shirley [his wife] and I will not be able to comply [with ObamaCare's alleged funding of abortion]. That is absolutely untenable to us, because it would make us participants in the killing of babies, and we can’t and we won’t do that…. [I]f we have to pay ruinous fines, or have to go to prison, or even if we have to leave this beloved country and spend the rest of our lives in exile, that’s what we are prepared to do.

Both the Manhattan Declaration and Dobson’s statements have been widely interpreted as a threat of tax resistance.

To those of us who decry both involuntary taxation and all governmental involvement in medicine, the defunding of Planned Parenthood is doubly attractive. This is not a pro- or anti-abortion stance; it is a pro-freedom of the individual stance. After all, those who support the organization could always continue to do so voluntarily out of their own pockets.

But a deeper scrutiny makes the anti-abortion demand to withdraw tax support, as well as last week’s stand-off on Capitol Hill, seem more like a tactic than a principle. In the end, both sides look appalling, not appealing. And, since the shutdown of the federal government is what’s on the table, political observers are well advised to understand the hands being played.

The conscientious objector theory

On its surface, the pro-life tax argument looks like a twist on the “conscientious objector” theory that anti-war activists have historically applied to the percentage of taxes that go to the military during war. The anti-war protesters argued that government has granted concessions to conscientious objectors regarding conscription and, so, it should grant tax concessions to them on similar grounds. Namely, they rejected war on a deep ethical level. The concession they demanded, therefore, was to withhold the “military percentage” of their tax bill. Some refused to pay anything at all in the belief that whatever was tendered would go partly toward war.

The foregoing parallel to conscientious war objectors tends to break down, however, for several reasons. For one thing, abortion objectors do not generally seek to withhold their own taxes but to cut off all tax funding from Planned Parenthood. Moreover, the tax funding of abortion is not as clear a matter as that of war. Much of it occurs on a state level where it varies widely. On a federal level, a statute known as the Hyde Amendment already severely restricts the use of most federal funds on abortion. Many argue, and with good reason, that the Hyde Amendment is honored more in the breach. Planned Parenthood employs a sleight-of-hand; it claims that funding it receives is not used for abortions but only for the other medical services it provides, such as pap smears.

Unfortunately, the two ways in which the parallel to war objectors is solid constitute the two greatest flaws in the abortion objectors’ position. Namely, they apply “conscience on taxes” argument inconsistently and they apply it too narrowly.

The inconsistency

Without question, pro-choice groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) or the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) are anti-choice when it comes to financing Planned Parenthood. They violate their own core principle of choice. What they want is to have their choice privileged through tax funding at the literal expense of those who passionately object. If the disagreement threatens one tax-penny, those groups cry “human rights violation!” when the only rights being violated belong to those forced to pay what they consider to be murder.

On the other hand, however, the question of taxes and conscience does not seem to arise when the money goes to anti-abortion efforts. Consider one example: the growing number of pregnancy crisis centers and other organizations that function as anti-abortion outlets. In many states, they receive tax funds. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State reports, “Since 2005, Texas has funded a program called Alternatives to Abortion Services, which has cost taxpayers $11.7 million. Remarkably, much of the money has been diverted from a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families…”

If a conscientious objector wishes to be taken seriously, then he must be consistent and also object to taxing abortion advocates for anti-abortion purposes. That hasn’t happened.

The narrow application

Another problem arises. If the contentious abortion objector’s argument is correct, then it proves more than he is willing to accept. The general form of the argument is that no one should be compelled to finance any undertaking to which he morally objects, from abortion to war, from public schools to the war on drugs. The consistent anti-abortionist must grant the same right of conscience in tax matters to others as he claims for himself. Otherwise, he is not arguing for conscience but for a special interest: his own. Indeed, the abortion objector is not arguing for rights at all. By their very nature, rights are universal; they apply to all people or to none. Unless the right of conscience in taxation is applied universally, the anti-abortionist is demanding a privilege. For most anti-abortionists, it is not even a privilege they are willing to extend to their anti-war counterparts who reject “the military tax.”

A universal right of conscience would revolutionize taxation by making payments virtually voluntary. It would immediately and radically limit the spending and size of government at all levels. Government would be forced to offer only the services that the public values. Now, that would be a glorious thing to see.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).