Conscience and Government Funding

Conscience rules for what government funds are complicated and unworkable if we treat everybody’s conscience fairly. Let’s stop treating the moral objections of those who oppose abortion as special.

Regular news updates from my NPR radio affiliate remind me that certain segments of our political conversation are still obsessed with the idea that the government can never, ever spend taxpayer money in a way that, even indirectly, might allow an abortion to occur. This is (ostensibly) because it’s wrong to force a person who believes abortion is murder to pay for one.

While I am sympathetic to the idea that there is a (small) wrong occurring when people are forced to pay for something that they believe is morally wrong, the idea that this should stop the government from funding something is obviously unworkable if extended beyond the most commonly claimed issues (usually abortion).

For example, I consider capital punishment to be morally repugnant. But, I’m forced to pay for it. I also consider subsidizing the activities of oil extraction companies that operate in the Niger Delta to be repugnant and bad foreign policy. I find a lot of things my government does with my tax money to be repugnant.

But I don’t think my personal moral objection means the government can’t possibly fund it and everyone has to take my objections extremely seriously. The only thing my moral objection gives me is a position to convince others and hopefully change the behavior of my government. If everyone’s moral objections as to what the government shouldn’t fund were taken as seriously as abortion, then the government likely couldn’t spend money on anything. But for some reason abortion is different.

Can’t the media and the public conversation stop giving special status to “the abortion question” as if that particular moral issue is of such great weight that any story about the Affordable Healthcare Act, Planned Parenthood or similar has to quote someone objecting to paying for abortion with public money? Over a third of Americans oppose the death penalty. That’s more than those who oppose abortion in all circumstances.

Let’s stop pretending the government is wrong to make people pay for something they think is morally wrong. The government does so regularly. Government would be unworkable if the moral objections of a minority always trumped public decision-making processes. Anti-abortion advocates may be able to stop the government from paying for abortions, but they do so with no more moral authority than anyone arguing against any particular government policy.