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Fund Me

Where do Libertarians stand on the issue of federal funding of Planned Parenthood? What sort of balance should be struck between the rights of conscientiously-objecting taxpayers and the rights of women to use Planned Parenthood (PP) services? The correct answer has nothing to do with abortion, an issue on which Libertarians lack unanimity. However, the existence of moral objections by any segment of society, whether considered valid by a majority or not, is an important consideration.

Do Individual Freedoms Require Taxpayer Support?

Sheldon Richman discusses the funding question on his Free Association blog in “Planned Parenthood, Social Peace and  the Libertarian approach“. He first makes a basic point: “… no one’s freedom is violated by lack of access to taxpayer money.” I agree, but this statement requires some context. For Libertarians, the baseline is a society in which individual liberty is a presumption. That cannot be the case if taxes and transfers dominate our economic lives. If we’re all busy picking each other’s pockets, then perhaps anyone can lay claim to a dollop of public funds to pay for any damn thing they want. But in a society that explicitly limits the powers of coercive government, private individuals cannot, on the public dime, lay claim to whatever they wish to compel from others. What they desire, after all, is almost always available privately. Therefore, the denial of public funding for PP does not constitute a denial of anyone’s rights.

Individual’s are free to exercise their reproductive or non-reproductive rights as they see fit, and to pay for related services themselves or by seeking a benefactor. Nothing is deprived to that individual other than an invalid claim on the belongings of others.

Individual rights ultimately boil down to the single right to be free from aggression, that is, to self-ownership. Rights would be defined out of existence if they could be ignored whenever doing so would make someone else’s objectives easier to accomplish. Such an approach to “rights” would turn rights theory on its head by making us a mere means to other people’s ends rather than ends in ourselves.

Consistent Application of Property Rights

Richman asserts that the right of ownership of one’s body applies equally to the right of individuals to the income they produce:

Ironically, the right to choose abortion is defended as an application of the right of women to their bodies, that is, as a property right (self-ownership). Another implication of the right to one’s own body is the right to control the fruits of one’s labor (income). No coherent theory of rights can permit a clash of the right to one’s body with the right to the fruits of one’s labor. Thus implicit in the pro-choice case is an argument against tax funding of Planned Parenthood (and anything else), that is, against taxation itself.

Leftist elites say that a denial of public funding for PP is tantamount to a denial of service to low-income women. Richman asks the elites to put up or shut up: if they believe the services in question are critical, they are free support PP financially, but they much prefer to extract resources from taxpayers without regard to possible moral objections.

Protection of Religious and Moral Principles

Richman adds the following thoughts on public funding of Planned Parenthood near the end of his post:

Reasonable people of all persuasions should see that it is simply unreasonable to force people to finance an organization they find morally offensive. Thomas Jefferson famously said, ‘To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.’ Compelling men and women to furnish contributions for the performance of services they deem immoral (whether or not they are) is worse.

Supporters of public PP funding have sought to deflect morality-based opposition with the contention that abortions represent only 3% of PP’s services, but Slate debunked that claim over two years ago. It was based on a count of tests and procedures performed, not on revenue. PP also claims that tax funds never pay for abortion, but as Richman points out, once available, the revenue is fungible and may be used to cover the cost of any procedure. In short, the argument is specious.

The Public Good Argument Is Weak

One more elephant in the PP funding debate concerns the appropriate functions of government. Does PP provide a truly “public” good, one having benefits that are nonexclusive to the primary user? Health services are sometimes assumed to confer public benefits; that is an easy argument in the case of infectious diseases and to some extent for medical research, but not for most health services. The benefits of individual health services are largely private, providing little justification for government funding of PP from a public finance perspective.

Collective Action Needs Strict Limits

Collective action should be confined to the provision of public goods, but even then it can be fraught with conflicts, such as the difficulty of accommodating pacifists during wartime. A truly liberal society will do all it can to accommodate diverse beliefs by allowing objectors to opt out, if possible, or avoiding the funding of private activities, especially those over which there is significant dissent. Under no circumstances should one be compelled to pay for private services that they find to be morally objectionable.