My Tax Dollars At Work


Inquiring liberal minds want to know why pro-lifers are eager to have the government stop giving Planned Parenthood hundreds of millions of dollars every year. After all, writes Ezra Klein, "abortion services comprise three percent of the services" that Planned Parenthood delivers, which means that if you cut their funding "you're mainly cutting contraception funding, thus ensuring more unwanted pregnancies and more abortions ... This is how the pro-life movement also becomes, in effect, the pro-herpes movement and the anti-birth control movement."

Just three percent, hmm? Why, that makes it sound like Planned Parenthood almost never performs abortions. Of course, the reality is rather different, as Charlotte Allen noted last year:

The 3 percent pie slice in the 2005-06 financial report, representing 264,943 abortion customers served, can only be described as deliberately misleading.

One way Planned Parenthood massages the numbers to make its abortion business look trivial is to unbundle its services for purposes of counting. Those 10.1 million different medical procedures in the last fiscal year, for instance, were administered to only 3 million clients. An abortion is invariably preceded by a pregnancy test--a separate service in Planned Parenthood's reckoning--and is almost always followed at the organization's clinics by a "going home" packet of contraceptives, which counts as another separate service. Throw in a pelvic exam and a lab test for STDs--you get the picture. In terms of absolute numbers of clients, one in three visited Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy test, and of those, a little under one in three had a Planned Parenthood abortion.

And even if they weren't massaging the numbers - even if their non-abortion business were enormous enough to make that three percent claim legitimate - they would still be performing more than 250,000 abortions a year. That's a 2, a 5, and four zeros - a figure that accounts, by Allen's reckoning, for somewhere north of $100 million in annual revenue for the organization, and that contrasts rather strikingly with the number 1,414, which is how many women the organization referred to an adoption agency in 2004-2005. (They've since stopped even reporting the adoption-referral number, apparently.).

If you're not against abortion, obviously, there's no reason any of this should bother you: Planned Parenthood's commitment to performing hundreds of thousands of low-cost abortions annually is a feature, not a bug. But telling people who are against abortion that they're "pro-herpes" because they don't support channeling three hundred million public dollars a year to America's largest abortion provider is the equivalent of me accusing a fierce and moralizing anti-theist like Sam Harris of being "anti-education" because he doesn't want his tax dollars being used to, say, fund the Catholic school system. The phenomenon of an institution that does good with one hand and evil with another is a familiar one in human history - even Hezbollah does a lot of impressive humanitarian work, I believe - and it does not by any means follow that those who oppose the evil are morally obligated to support the institution anyway just because it does other, less morally problematic things besides.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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