Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Abortion and Public Funding

There is a great deal of debate right now, as a subset of the health care debate, about whether abortion is or ought to be covered by a taxpayer funded program. Over and over, reports and studies show us that the current plans do cover abortion, but the moral debate obviously is not over. Salon’s Broadsheet posted the “10 Reasons Abortion Must Be Covered.” It begins:

Abortion should be covered by health insurance. We say this, we sense this, we assume this. We insist that abortion is simply a medical procedure -- and that it, therefore, merits coverage.

Calling abortion “simply a medical procedure” is like saying murder is “just another way to use a knife.” Medical procedure or not, it is the ethics of the issue which matter in this case, and outside of some polling concerns and worries about a “slippery slope,” the post is not that interested in raising the central ethical question. Among the 10 reasons, Lynn Harris lists these.

1. Abortion is legal medical care.

2. Abortion is common, mainstream medical care.

Both of these considerations only beg the question. It is true that in most cases in most states, abortion is legal, but again, that side-steps the fundamental ethical issues. By this reasoning we might be able to say that because euthanasia is legal in Switzerland (it is, and it is a growing business), the government has a duty to financially provide for doctor assisted suicide. The legality or illegality of any act does not settle the moral question.

5. Covering abortion makes abortion safer.

This is a standard chestnut pulled out at every opportunity. As more real statistical work is done, the more the claims of the tens of thousands of deaths by back-alley abortions becomes an urban legend. It just has not been proven (it has been asserted abundantly!) that legality makes for safety where there was none before.

7. Excluding abortion from coverage sends us down a slippery "moral" slope.

Here the author is worried that if we begin to look at these provisions through the eyes of a particular moral view, then we will be down a path of removing all kinds of other legal protections as a result of that view. That may or may not be the case, but if there is at least one immoral act we can exclude from taxpayer funding, I don’t think this is a compelling reason not to try.


Brian B said...

Hey Phil! Great post again. Just wanted to offer some thoughts.

I wonder if Salon types and those who oppose coverage for abortion are talking past one another a bit. One might think that those who oppose coverage for abortion do so because they believe abortion should be illegal (because it is the unjust taking of a human life, etc.), and it is that latter belief that they take to be the "real issue." I think there's certainly a sense in which that's right.

But perhaps Salon-minded folks are intending to address a different question - not the question "Should abortion be legal in the first place?" but rather, "Given that abortion is legal - given that the law of the land defines abortion as a medical procedure and not the unjust taking of a life - should abortion be covered by insurance?" Someone attempting to answer that question might very well think that the "given" is reprehensible - that the "law of the land" is mistaken and immoral - and yet still think it's worth addressing what follows from its being the law of the land.

For instance, many believe that homosexual acts are morally impermissible and that they should (therefore) be illegal. The law of the land, however, permits such acts (though it didn't always do so). It seems reasonable for someone to ask, "Given that homosexual acts are legally permissible, what follows concerning matter X?" even if there is disagreement about whether they should be legally permissible. I can imagine circumstances in which it would seem a bit unfair to, say, an advocate for X if he were accused by an opponent of X of "begging the question" against them, simply because they disagree about the propriety of the "given."

Now maybe Salon isn't thinking this way - indeed, some of their reasons suggest that they aren't, that they are trying to defend the legality and propriety of abortion, rather than the propriety of covering abortion given that it's legal. But perhaps at least some of the debate about abortion coverage could be understood as not even proper disagreement, because the parties to the debate are addressing different questions. That seem plausible?

Even if so, I think the answer to the question, "Given the legality of abortion, what follows concerning coverage for it?" is far from obvious, and indeed is worth discussing. But appropriate answers to that question will require something other than just arguments for or against the legality of abortion, I would think.

Phil Steiger said...


I think you are right that Salon-types can and do certainly make that argument, whether or not this particular article did. It did, however, use the one key word I think is being used as the debate ender: "right."

Political rights are heavy-duty things that inherently come with political, economic, and social responsibilities. Especially if abortion is construed as a positive right, then it is the government's duty to not only protect it but make sure it can occur as often as individuals want it to occur. And if this point of view holds, then both the legality and funding of abortion are givens.

So, I might guess that the link between the legality of an act (freedom of speech, freedom of most forms of expression, etc.) and the appropriateness of taxpayer funding rest on the debate over rights. I do find many legal acts immoral, and thus might be opposed to funding them. At the same time, I might believe the ought to be legally permitted. But if they can be construed as rights, I might be compelled to fund them.

I guess this may be why I keep on returning to the morality of the act. Legality and my moral system are certainly not 100% overlapping Venn Diagrams. But if I can make a case that a legal act is immoral, I may have a good reason to resist funding it.

In any event, thanks for the thoughts! I have been yearning for more intellectual stimulation lately.

Brian B said...

Interesting - I think you're right (ha!) about "rights" being mis-used here. I always wonder what people mean when they say things like, "people have a right to health care." Do they mean that government should not forbid them from having it? Or that anyone who prevents them from having it should face government sanction? Or government should take steps to ensure that people in fact have it? These are very different things, and I think you're right - people slide from saying something plausible, like, "given Roe v. Wade, women have a right to have abortions," where "right" is understood as something like a legal permission, to saying something implausible, like "given Roe v. Wade, women have a right to have taxpayer money provided for their abortions." Here it's hard to see how this amounts to a legal obligation on the part of taxpayers to support it - just like you said.

I guess one way to frame the debate about abortion coverage is to ask whether, given that the current (and controversial) interpretation of the Constitution guarantees the permissibility of abortion, would denying coverage for abortion be unconstitutional, because it violates some kind of "equal protection" clause or any other existing law? If so, then that seems like a pretty good argument for the Salon types. But if not, then I wonder what the Salon types would suggest are the right (and generalizable) principles for deciding whether abortion should be covered. Shouldn't, for instance, the highly controversial nature of the abortion issue make a difference? How much of a difference? And so on...

Anyway, all this certainly doesn't answer harder questions like what Christians ought to think about cases in which the Constitution seems to permit something that Scripture plainly condemns as immoral, especially when taxpayer funds directly or indirectly support such a practice. Ugh!

Eric "the" Lind said...

An interesting take on rights and government would be free speech. It is well within my rights to ramble aimlessly about how Google is controlled by aliens who are bent on using dried spaghetti to control our minds, but no one (I hope) believes that it is reasonable for the government to give me a grant to further my right to free speech. However, the government should not stifle my right, either.

I think the explicit right of free speech is a good counter point to the the derived right of freedom to have an abortion. If the government is not mandated to fund free speech, then it certainly isn't mandated to fund abortion, either.

Of course, given the recent passage of hate crime laws, it appears that the government is now bent on restricting free speech rather severely. The human mind generally thinks free speech is fine so long as it's one's own speech, and not the speech of those who disagree with me.