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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Planned Parenthood, Social Peace, and the Libertarian Approach

The controversy raging over Planned Parenthood is one of the most acrimonious public discussions in recent memory. While the immediate issue concerns the disposition of fetal tissue after abortion (pregnant women can have tissue donated for medical research), the controversy taps into the more basic, and highly charged, conflict between defenders of women's reproductive rights -- the right to choose an abortion -- and defenders of unborn children's right to life. But my purpose here is not to settle that conflict.

Conservatives want the government to defund Planned Parenthood for allegedly selling fetal tissue. Progressives counter 1) that Planned Parenthood did nothing illegal and 2) that defunding the organization would deprive low-income women of needed medical services that have nothing to do with abortion, such as contraception, cancer screenings, and STD testing.

Witnessing the hostility -- the sheer lack of civility -- in this controversy reinforces the fact that the libertarian approach holds the key to civil peace. Putting aside the abortion question (which conservatives say is not their reason for wanting to defund Planned Parenthood, since tax money cannot pay for abortion except in extreme cases), reasonable people should see that the immediate conflict could be ended by not giving the organization any taxpayer money. Since much of the money comes through Medicaid (which is partly state-funded), this matter is just the tip of quite a large iceberg. We should have learned long ago that government finance and supervision of medicine and medical "insurance" -- it's not really insurance -- inevitably will violate some people's consciences. We've seen this in the contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

Getting down to basics, no one's freedom is violated by lack of access to taxpayer money. Tax revenues have their source in threats of violence; that's why we distinguish tax payments from voluntary donations. You cannot say no to the taxman with impunity. While anyone should be free to give his or her own money to Planned Parenthood, why should someone with conscientious (or other) objections be compelled to support that (or any) organization? It is inconsistent for Planned Parenthood advocates to defend women's reproductive rights while calling for measures that violate men's and women's property rights. 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.

Would defunding Planned Parenthood deprive women of access to reproductive and other services? I don't see how. If A refuses to pay for a service B wants, we cannot reasonably say that A deprives B of the service, because the mere refusal in no way costs B her political and legal freedom to obtain the service. Put another way, A's freedom to control her own money in no way interferes with B's freedom to control her own body. A may not like how B controls her body, but A has the right to think however she wishes about B's action. Likewise, B's choices do not deprive A of her freedom.

Planned Parenthood advocates may fall back on the claim that depriving the organization of tax money would make it more difficult for low-income women to obtain services. But that is not an argument for coercing people who wish to use their own money in other ways. 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.

As a practical matter, the prospect that defunding Planned Parenthood would leave low-income women without services seems unlikely. Are we really to believe that a private fundraising campaign would fall short of raising the needed money? (Planned Parenthood reports a lot of net assets.) One can reasonably expect that wealthy benefactors who passionately believe in women's reproductive rights will more than make up for the lost tax subsidy.

Throughout the controversy, Planned Parenthood has insisted that tax money does not finance abortions, except in the cases allowed by law: rape, incest, and when the woman's life is at risk. (Some abortion opponents of course object to those exceptions.) This claim, however, is disingenuous. Money is fungible: if the government gives Planned Parenthood taxpayer money to finance services other than abortion, money becomes available for abortions.

The heart-felt disagreement over abortion may never be resolved, but we need not aggravate the social conflict by adding coercive funding to the controversy. 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.

Human beings flourish to the fullest in an environment of peaceful social cooperation. Government, with its power of taxation and allocation, is the great disturber of that peace. Let's begin the process of uprooting this engine of discord.

Sheldon Richman keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society. Become a patron today!


Michael said...

Great article.

This phrase "Compelling men and women to furnish contributions for the performance of services they deem immoral (whether or not they are) is worse" has made me wonder if you are willing to apply this argument to the topic of "mandated vaccinations", or if you will make an exception.

I fear I'll see libertarians criticising Trump over this, and supporting any other fascist who do not question science.

Even if the argument of "herd immunity" was true (and some experts claim that it shows logical and empirical flaws) we cannot ignore that it is an exception to the fundamentals of libertarianism.

I would have more confidence in vaccines in general if there were no patents and revolving doors involved. Yet other people seem to have a soft spot with this topic, and are willing to let these things pass, for the greater good. These unlearned libertarians behave similarly with psychiatric drugs and forced hospitalization. Very few libertarians are willing to denounce the possibility of abuse. And thanks to Wikipedia, young people believe that "slippery slope" is always a fallacy.

I miss the clarity and boldness of Thomas Szasz. He could have written five books with all the crazy things that have happened this year. It amazes me the naivety of libertarians who believe that governments can corrupt anything they touch, except science and medicine.

Ssemans said...

Isn't the proper libertarian position that Planned Parenthood should be defunded to the exact same degree and extent that every other organization providing medical services with taxpayer money is defunded? No more, no less.

Sheldon Richman said...

Yes, but not just medical services.

MarkZ said...

"Getting down to basics, no one's freedom is violated by lack of access to taxpayer money."

This is a simplified view, Sheldon. If there *is* taxpayer money to be spent -- and there is -- then it makes sense to argue about where it gets spent. If they decide that it is going to be diverted from PP to, say, the war apparatus, then I have a real problem with that.

The freedom part is moot. We already lost it when people decided that taxes are ok. As a libertarian, I think a better focus should be spent on ensuring that the money taken from us doesn't get wasted in corporate subsidy, the war machine, the incarceration culture, the schooling scam, or any of the other programs that put a marked strain on good people trying to live their lives. PP is one of the very few recipients, in my view, that is relatively benign and shockingly effective (for a government subsidized organization) in what it does. I'm surprised it wasn't defunded long ago just because it carries those two traits.

Ssemans said...

Exactly. Abortion as an example of taxation forcing support for something those taxed find immoral is an oft-made point, and applies to war, mandatory schooling, ad infinitum. The points that could be made on the baby-parts issue from a libertarian perspective are that Republicans are attempting to violate the principle of equality under the law, and they are batshit for doing this so forcefully, over so little, at this particular time.