Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Funding cuts are not bans

The GOP is attempting to cut the entire $75 million in federal funding Planned Parenthood receives, along with the rest of the Title X family planning package of $317 million. What I'm hearing from my friends on the left is that this will shut down Planned Parenthood and ban abortion, a conclusion I reject.

Just like when I wrote about how opposing third-wave feminism's government programs is spun as opposing gender equality, this attempt to cut $75 million in federal funding from an organization with an annual budget of about $1.1 billion is not shutting it down. Yet, up come the placards and protests that this an assault on abortion.

Clearly, opposition to abortion plays some role in choosing this as a place to cut, but it's dishonest to present it as anything less than a funding cut. This is not a post against abortion or Planned Parenthood - an organization that also provides clearly valuable services such as contraceptives and STD testing. Instead, I'm writing about the confusion between having the government fund something or not and why that is not the same as keeping it legal or banning it.

The exact same thing happened when President George W. Bush's limitations on federal funding for stem cell research was consistently referred to as a ban. Dan Shuster wrote in early 2005:

Bush has put no restrictions on the use of adult stem cells and federal funding is allowed for [embryonic stem] cells that were derived “with the informed consent of the donors, from excess embryos created solely for reproductive purposes and without any financial inducements to the donors.” Federal funds are not provided “for the derivation or use of stem cell lines derived from newly destroyed embryos, the creation of any human embryos for research purposes or the cloning of human embryos for any purpose.” Notwithstanding, there is a current surplus of embryos that were destroyed prior to the initiation of this “ban” in 2001, which can be federally funded to develop an embryonic stem cell line. Also, it is perfectly legal to privately fund any form of stem cell research.
President Bush's limited funding approval of embryonic stem cell research was enough to put him on an Internet "hit list"by an anti-abortion extremist. Researchers still had 21 genetic lines to grow in the lab, but all these details were glossed over and the left claimed that stem cell research was banned. Not limited from certain kinds of funding, but illegal as nuclear cocaine.

When President Obama reversed the policy even CBS news put the myth in its headline "Obama Ends Stem Cell Research Ban." But the research was never banned, it just had restrictions on one type of funding. I think my opponents are either misinformed, too lazy to check the details or not creative enough to think of an alternative way to fund the projects they support.

I realize the left believes anything that creates a public good or major positive externalities must come from the government and thus can't imagine private money helping stem cell research or Planned Parenthood. However, Federal funding bans do not stop non-federal governments from funding research like California did for embryonic stem cell research in 2004.

What's to stop state governments from funding Planned Parenthood? If increasing state budgets is a concern for my friends of the left, then welcome aboard! Does it really matter if X dollars are shifted from the federal budget to the state budget. Federal taxes will either go down or not be raised in relationship to X and will be compensated by an equal change in state taxes. In addition, Russ Roberts wrote in 1995 that it's much more efficient to share costs - such as tax money - in smaller groups.

While liberal states shouldn't have trouble approving passing state funding, some of the conservative states probably would, and that's where private activists could make up the difference. The federal funding being cut is a mere $75 million and the National Organization of Women has an annual budget of about $3.5 billion. The organization could simply redirect some of its lobbying money to Planned Parenthood and use abortion funding to solicit higher donations from supporters.

There has never been anything stopping NOW, or any other pro-abortion group, from providing "abortion scholarships" to the impoverished women NOW says it stands for. One advantage here would be the people who oppose abortion would no longer have to pay for it, and the people who really believe in it would be the ones who foot the bill.

What's going on here is the marriage of the coincidental positions liberals tend to have in supporting abortion rights and their tendency to support government programs while remaining skeptical of private solutions. They are focusing the debate on the first issue and leaving the second one as an unspoken assumption. I have much more interest in the second issue - the one of funding options - and reject the notion that only federal funding can provide abortions for the poor.

Cutting federal funding to a private program should never be confused with a ban. Opposing the federal funding a Planned Parenthood is related to the abortion debate, but it is not a proxy war. There is no contradiction in supporting abortion rights while opposing federal funding of abortions. If this funding cut happens, it will not spell the end of abortion in America, and if abortion supporters want to make the best of the situation they will figure out other ways to fund it.


  1. Great post. The same is being done right now with funding for public broadcasting. I saw an online petition to "stop the Republicans from destroying PBS!" I'll never understand the "need" to force a society to support something that it refuses to do so privately.

  2. I agree with your argument that cutting federal subsidies of Planned Parenthood is not a ban... In fact, why is Planned Parenthood subsidized in the first place? Don't get me wrong, I am a proponent of a woman's choice, but I am confident that there is a large enough market to keep Planned Parenthood around for a very long time. Not only is it one of the only places for women to get abortions, but it has a very large support base of Pro-choicers (who would all donate money if it really were to go out of business). Furthermore, it already receives major tax breaks because of its non-profit status.