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To Defend or Defund? Evangelicals Go Wobbly on Planned Parenthood, Public Justice, and Moral Judgment

Despite arguments to the contrary, pro-lifers simply cannot support federal funding for Planned Parenthood. If the price for a seat at the public justice table is taxpayer funding for the nation’s leading abortion provider, it may be time to think about another table.

Roughly twenty-five years ago, Mike Godwin introduced a prediction about moral discourse that not only “went viral” but has been officially recognized as part of our lexicon by the Oxford English Dictionary. Godwin, a libertarian tech policy analyst and attorney at the R Street Institute, penned what has become known as “Godwin’s Law”: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1.”

I’d like to propose not a new Godwin’s Law, but Watson’s Hope, that in fifty years we will regard Planned Parenthood in such a way that people will reflexively point toward it as a noncontroversial referent of unequivocal and monstrous moral evil.

If this hope is ever realized, the turning point may start with the recent images and conversations associated with Planned Parenthood’s performing over 300,000 abortions per year and profiting from the sale of the organs of their victims. For pro-choicers and pro-lifers alike, the prospect of medical professionals calmly discussing the sale of human organs over a glass of wine and lunch should make an indelible impression.

Unfortunately, learning about the dismembering of preborn human beings and profiting from selling their organs has led not to a national campaign of moral outrage and legal consequences, but rather indictments for those who exposed Planned Parenthood’s practices. Yet not everyone has shrugged. Ten states have exercised their authority to promote and protect the common good by preventing Medicaid funds from going to Planned Parenthood clinics in their jurisdictions. The Obama administration in turn has warned that these actions may violate federal law. Thus, the current controversy is not even about whether Planned Parenthood should be allowed to continue its business, but whether taxpayer support should further Planned Parenthood’s mission, and how to discipline those states that think it should not.

A Pro-Life Case for Funding Planned Parenthood?

But might it be possible for one to be both pro-life and favor government funding for Planned Parenthood? That’s the rhetorical question raised and answered in the affirmative by lawyer and nonprofit advocate Chelsea Langston writing for the Center for Public Justice, a Christian think tank dedicated to policy research and civic education (she coauthored an earlier version with Stanley Carlson-Thies for the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance). Langston’s argument goes as follows.

Even though Planned Parenthood performs abortions, federal law prohibits federal money from funding abortion. Thus, the question is not whether the government should support abortion, but whether the government can support an organization that performs abortions and provides other morally uncontroversial services. Langston outlines two principles that should inform our thinking about this issue. The first is that the government should “protect and uphold all human life, especially the most vulnerable, including the unborn.” The second is that the government should “recognize and uphold the diverse organizational structures of civil society.” That is, the government’s openness to “a diversity of providers is a precious value.”

Langston notes that the value of diversity is not without boundaries. Any morally acceptable pluralism will have to draw lines somewhere, excluding some groups while including others. Determining whether Planned Parenthood should be excluded from government funding is “complex,” and while arguments can be made that Planned Parenthood’s recent activities disqualify it from public funding, Langston argues that these efforts by the ten states “give us cause to think carefully.” There can be “critical negative consequences” for other important goods as well as the pro-life cause.

What are these critical negative consequences? The first is that excluding Planned Parenthood from the range of Medicaid providers reduces the number of options that citizens have to meet their medical needs. The second consequence is closely related to the first. It is this pluralistic agreement to have a diversity of providers that allows faith-based organizations also to be eligible for government funding. There are already forces at work to exclude faith-based organizations from a host of public service areas—Langston mentions LGBT groups and homeless ministries—and if Planned Parenthood is excluded, she fears that faith-based groups will be targeted by pro-choice advocates.

Given the prospect of losing out on eligibility for government funding, Langston concludes, pro-lifers should acknowledge all the good things that Planned Parenthood does, and instead look to increase pro-life options within the Medicaid system as currently constituted. Otherwise we would be faced with a “slippery slope” upon which more progressive states may retaliate by excluding pro-life and faith-based services.

Tactical Discernment and Moral Principles

What to make of this line of reasoning? Put aside for a moment the fungibility response to the claim about funding, as if federal funding for Planned Parenthood’s other services does not free up the organization’s resources to provide more efficiently for abortions, and for the salaries of officials who negotiate prices for livers, hearts, and kidneys. And while pro-lifers should admit that shutting off Medicaid to Planned Parenthood may have negative consequences for some recipients looking for legitimate services, the case for a catastrophe for such citizens is overhyped given the number of PP alternatives that can answer the call. Nor need we dwell on Langston’s first critical negative consequence. While it is true that removing Planned Parenthood from the range of providers reduces choice for Medicaid recipients, the very question at stake is where to draw the boundaries of that range. It is only a “critical negative consequence” if we in fact determine that funding Planned Parenthood actually furthers the public good. This argument begs the question.

It is the second negative consequence that bears more scrutiny. Langston’s concern is that efforts to defund Planned Parenthood at the federal or state level may lead to similar efforts by progressive forces targeting faith-based and other traditional organizations and charities. While this concern does not beg the question, it does raise two sets of pressing questions. The first set is about tactical and cultural discernment, and the second concerns principle.

What evidence do we have that those who side with Planned Parenthood—those who defend abortion and, de facto if not de jure, human organ sales—have the moral character to be swayed by the “precious value” of diversity in government-supported social services? Has there been a viable “live and let live” cooperative vibe either in the campaign for same-sex marriage and transgender rights or on the part of the abortion lobby? Does Langston really believe that a commitment to good-faith pluralism on the part of pro-life groups will be reciprocated by their opposition, given power and opportunity?

Perhaps one’s own commitment to public justice means adhering to principle even when others do not. The problem with this stance is that it still requires some prior principle whereby we can determine how far the boundaries of pluralism extend. Langston both acknowledges that this boundary must exist and simultaneously, if reluctantly, argues that Planned Parenthood is on the legitimate side of the boundary. Is the standard that does this heavy lifting really the fear that removing funding from Planned Parenthood will be the key variable in pushing otherwise fair-minded critics of religiously motivated public service to strike? If the price for a seat at the public justice table is taxpayer funding for the nation’s leading abortion provider, it may be time to think about another table.

Langston is entirely right that different approaches and values will compete and jostle in a pluralistic democracy. We do well to abide by a system that helps us adjudicate those differences rather than be left to our own devices to win by force or fraud. Our pluralism is broad indeed in the legal sense, as our commitments to freedom of association and freedom of speech extend to a host of groups with which no morally decent person should associate. Government funding, however, is a different matter. Government funding sends a positive message that the government’s partner in this or that venture is a reliable organization promoting the public good. Whatever complexity abides in some gray areas of public policy, as Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George write in the Harvard Health Policy Review, there simply is no understanding of the public good that can include funding organizations that perform and profit from the deliberate taking of innocent human life:

Government funding of various social welfare and public health programs is meant to advance the common good. But intentionally killing innocent human lives is never good; and that’s why the federal government has rightly insisted that no funding through the Department of Health and Human Services may be used for elective abortion. Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood receives government funding for other services it provides. This is morally bad public policy. Planned Parenthood and other providers of elective abortion should not be eligible for any government funding. No matter how beneficial the other services they provide may be to a community, their participation in the unjust ending of innocent human lives should prevent them from receiving any governmental funding.

It is not a shock that pro-choice advocates object to this conclusion, but it is somewhat surprising to see pro-life public policy analysts concur. After all, even the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services offer some guidelines in their warning to the states as to the qualifications of a legitimate partner for the federal government; partners like Planned Parenthood must provide services “in a professionally competent, safe, legal, and ethical manner.”

And this leads us to the second set of questions regarding principle. Do state legislators and their constituents have the competence to determine what counts as competent, safe, legal, and ethical, as applied to all members of the human community? Do justice-minded Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other citizens of good will? Assuming the answer to these questions is yes, what would it take for an organization to be considered beyond the pale? If more than 300,000 abortions a year and the ghoulish marketing of human organs do not trigger whatever principle one has to define the boundaries of pluralism and government funding, then what would?

A final question in an attempt to clarify what should need no explanation at all. Does an organization include among its services the termination of the most vulnerable and innocent among us, and has it sold the human organs of those who have been carefully targeted by the surgeon’s scalpel? If the answer is yes, then that organization may still be legal, but is most assuredly not competent for any decent public service, safe for mothers or their children, nor ethical by any humanly decent standard. There is no sliding down that slope, for a culture that endorses such an organization and defends its operation is already at the bottom.

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