Bottom line up front: People opposed to abortion have a perfect example of how to resist what they perceive as government funding of an immoral action: the movement to resist paying taxes that support war. If people opposed to abortion do not follow this model, if they persist in attempting to use government to enforce their beliefs on others, I conclude that they are in fact attempting to legislate their morality in a way that is inconsistent with their stated beliefs and purposes.
In my efforts to understand and deal with the portion of my society that wants to restrict or eliminate women’s access to reproductive choices, especially abortion, I have often been stymied by the idea that if these people actually believe that abortion is murder, they are actually doing an ethical thing by doing nearly everything possible to prevent murder. I feel I have a responsibility to take them at their word that they are not trying to establish a theocracy or enforce their religious beliefs, that instead they are trying to create legislation just as necessary as the laws against homicide, manslaughter, etc. If I believe them on that topic, then the debate revolves around what each person thinks of abortion, rather than whether this is an appropriate topic to legislate.
I have finally come up with a comparable example that shows how people opposed to abortion, whether for religious reasons or not, could pursue their goal of not participating in or contributing to abortions without trying to eliminate others’ access to the health care of their choice. The efforts of pacifists to resist participating in war or even paying taxes that directly fund war are morally equivalent in nearly all ways, but the pacifists have had the courage of their convictions and have not attempted to make their beliefs compulsory for everyone.
No one is in any doubt that war kills people. There is no possible room for debate over whether the soldiers and civilians killed are fully human, independent persons. Pacifists are on much stronger ground than the so-called pro-life side: the pacifists are truly pro-life. (In fact, a Catholic bishop pointed out that if one is opposed to abortion, one must also be against the death penalty and not wholly pro-war in order to be consistently “pro-life.” Would that more people had listened!) No one is in any doubt that our country is actively engaged in killing people, and that our taxes fund that.
We have recognized principled opposition to war by creating the status of conscientious objector; people who meet certain criteria are excused from military service that would otherwise be required. I’ll address the complex issue of similar “conscience clauses” in medical care in another post. But the major fights right now regarding abortion and women’s health care are supposedly about funding. There is a major push on in Congress to place all kinds of restrictions on women’s health care based on the idea that no federal funding should go pay for abortion, since some people who pay taxes object to abortion on moral grounds.
The courts have repeatedly established that people are not excused from paying taxes because they object to the uses of that tax money, even if the objection is on religious grounds. Resisting government funding for abortion on moral grounds is no more admirable than resisting government funding for war on moral grounds. The “pro-life” movement ought to be making common cause with those who resist paying taxes that fund war, and ought to be working to change the tax code or the structure of government so they can be sure their money doesn’t go to those purposes. Why don’t they?
The so-called “pro-life” crowd is trying to enforce its moral beliefs on everyone else. The heart of their argument is that the woman cannot decide what is right for her and the fetus. Pacifists similarly argue that neither the soldier nor the government can decide whether it is right to wage war and take lives. Principled pacifists realize that this means they cannot enforce their position on others – that would be just as wrong as the government using soldiers to decide who lives, who dies, and who owns what oil-producing land. But the so-called “pro-life” crowd think that they can decide what is best for women. They can decide that women should be allowed to die rather than have an abortion; the woman can’t decide for herself, but they can decide for her. They are like pacifists standing outside a recruiting center and shooting people to keep them from joining the military.
They are hypocrites of the worst sort, and their actions belie their words. I believe the actions. If they want people to take them seriously and to try to work with them, they ought to act in accord with what they say they believe, and take a principled stand, even to the point of suffering the consequences. I respect conscientious objectors and I even respect pacifists who resist taxes that pay for war. I do not respect hypocrites who endanger others and protect themselves.