Against Moral Idealism in Defunding Planned Parenthood

October 8, 2015

The pro-life movement is ordered toward a single end: establishing the conditions, economic and otherwise, so that every baby conceived in America is welcomed into a loving home. Of course, such a state of affairs is too broad, too underdetermined to function meaningfully as a goal. The path between our current situation and there requires seeking changes not only in our country’s laws and governmental structures, but better economic support for single mothers, smoother adoption processes, and a host of other changes that are more cultural than political. Social change is like baking a cake, except without any directions: you need all the right ingredients, but there are no rules about how they will react when mixed together.

It is no wonder, then, that in the face of such complexity, the pro-life movement has emphasized changing laws to restrict access to abortions while simultaneously supporting and counseling single mothers and at-risk women. On the one hand, laws have a broad, general applicability; by constraining the choices of every citizen, legislation (of any kind) has a pervasive and wide social effect, even if that effect is not known immediately and may sometimes be hard to detect. On the other, supporting and counseling women who are considering abortions is the sort of concrete, specific action that is immeasurably more satisfying: one knows one has saved a life and has a story to tell.  Both forms of action are necessary; neither is sufficient.

In between these poles, however, are a host of other incremental, sometimes invisible changes on the way toward the ideal of ending abortion in America. Defunding Planned Parenthood is the change that has received the most attention outside the pro-life world of late. No pro-life organization or individual in the world believes ceasing the steady flow of tax dollars to the organization will end abortions by itself. Defunding is, instead, simply one more element among the vast social complexities that have to be addressed sooner or later. And now seems to be a promising time.

The central rhetorical challenge to defunding Planned Parenthood, however, has been the claim that disadvantaged women will suffer because of the loss of access to crucial health services, and that the variety of alternative providers simply are not large or pervasive enough in American society to make up the difference. Matthew Loftus, for instance, argued that pro-lifers should push to expand Medicaid in order to compensate for what would be lost if Planned Parenthood suffers.

The sentiment at the heart of Loftus’ essay is understandable—but it is one that less careful and more progressive proponents than Loftus have used to undermine the incrementalism that the pro-life community has largely adopted. The notion that we should only defund Planned Parenthood if and when we have sufficient alternatives in place to ensure that no one experiences a gap in services is a tempting ideal, but not one anyone should reasonably accept.

When wrongs are baked into a culture, people who otherwise have no stake in those misdeeds become entangled in them through no fault of their own, frequently by enjoying—even unwittingly—the benefits those misdeeds momentarily provide. The undoing of such wrongs inevitably causes suffering, and invariably those who are least guilty will suffer most. But the responsibility for such collateral damage falls on the original wrongdoers, not those who seek the remedy. And the likelihood of such suffering should in no way prevent us from seeking justice in the first place. If we outlawed pornography in this country, countless people would be out of work, and many of them would be women at risk of greater social harms. But there is no obligation on us as a society to allow such products to be made until everyone in the industry has another job.

The notion that there is no form of suffering our society should accept in the unwinding of gravely evil moral systems is a reverse form of moral perfectionism and idealism. There is a disparity, to be sure, in my writing this: I will not bear the defunding of Planned Parenthood the way many of my neighbors might. But there are wrongs we must end and there are sorrows and sufferings we must allow—allow but not intend, accept but not choose. No one really believes in a moral idealism that refuses to countenance any consequent harms in the pursuit of our preferred goods: but it is a convenient position for critics of the pro-life community to adopt in order to ensure that nothing ever happens. “We need to change hearts and minds, not laws” is a refrain that is often on the lips of the sort of pro-lifer who thanks God they’re not like those extreme people who hold up signs and go to rallies. But while it is true that the ideal demands such a widespread and deep renewal, pro-lifers have learned to be incrementalists well—which means changing laws and fighting political battles. The refrain that we should only defund Planned Parenthood if we ensure no one loses out is itself simply another form of this lofty moral idealism, one which Loftus’ essay comes near to even if he doesn’t embrace it outright.

The unwillingness on the part of many progressives to countenance the thought of allowing any harms to anyone, even those currently disadvantaged, is itself one of the strongest and most pervasive reasons for the perpetuation of the unjust system of abortion that has throttled our country. By enmeshing abortion within a network of distributing health care (but not as much as advertised!), Planned Parenthood advocates are able to weaponize the very victims they exploit in order to ensure they can continue to do wrongs. The idea that such an unjust system could be unwound without any suffering among its beneficiaries—those who are at the top of the system, and their “clients”—is simply fanciful. It is as probable as the proposition that slavery could have been destroyed without the suffering of both the slaveholders and those doubly unfortunate men and women who had to learn to make their own way in a strange new world.

Indeed, avoiding accepting even the possibility of our own suffering and harm is at the heart of our country’s most pressing social problems. Refusing to countenance the possibility that America could be attacked again on 9/11 helped justify a regime of torture that itself was a gross stain on the American conscience and character. Our police forces have often so heroically and willingly become vulnerable in the face of danger so that the rest of us have not. But the militarized forces that approached the people of Ferguson made it clear that they would not accept the risk of loss and show their faces, faces that are necessary for reminding the society that they are our own police officers, even if they do not look like us. There cost of maintaining the pretense of invulnerability is far higher than most people realize. The cost of being vulnerable is one most people refuse to even consider.

Which is why Loftus may be right that it should be Medicaid programs and American tax-dollars to compensate for the burden at-risk women might fall under. It has a strong rhetorical force, and it appropriately seeks to shift the cost of bringing justice toward those who are best able to bear it. The strong help the weak, after all. And critics will simply say that the willingness to accept social harms simply endorses a so-called “war on women.”

But as I said, the injustices that arise in unwinding an unjust situation are not those any pro-lifer seeks or wants. But the actual, present evils of dismembering human beings in the womb are gravely disproportionate to the possible—not even actual, but only theoretical and based on people’s best guesses and predictions—disruption of services to those women who seek them. Again, torture is the appropriate analogue: the extreme situation of a war or a possible threat to American safety under no circumstances justifies torturing human persons.

And I am skeptical about the efficacy of Loftus’ proposal: nature abhors a vacuum, but political communities might need one if they are to rediscover and rebuild the social and moral ties which those who are at risk need to reverse their fortunes. But this kind of argument, and the overoptimistic claims by pro-lifers that no women will be affected if Planned Parenthood is defunded, should not obscure the more fundamental and basic fact that in the face of such gross moral evils we should unhesitatingly accept the burdens such actions might impose, even if those who are most disadvantaged have to bear them hardest.

Justice in an imperfect world demands that someone lose out. When people benefit from unjust systems, any remedy demands some kind of compensatory loss, either from them or from someone else. The necessity of suffering for the sake of bringing the just to an imperfect world is an ineradicable feature of the moral universe, and we avoid it or downplay it at the cost of our own clarity. We may struggle to articulate any rational basis for which wrongs we will allow and which we cannot abide, but we simply cannot fall prey to the kind of moral idealism that only pursues justice under the conditions that no one suffer for it.

Matthew Lee Anderson
Matthew Lee Anderson is the founder of Mere Orthodoxy, and a D.Phil. candidate in Christian Ethics at Oxford University.