Should Taxpayers Pay for Abortions?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That question is a dividing line between the Democratic nominee and her running mate right now, as Emma Green explained yesterday:

[T]he 2016 Democratic Party Platform includes a call to repeal [the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions]—the first time the party has taken such a stance, according to a campaign representative. Hillary Clinton has made her opposition to the Amendment clear on the campaign trail. Yet on Friday, her running mate, Tim Kaine, said on CNN that he supports the Hyde Amendment.

A reader notes how popular the Hyde Amendment is:

A significant minority of Democrats, 42 percent, oppose federal funding of abortion, and a significant majority of the general electorate, 64 percent, oppose it as well. [A 2009 CNN poll put that latter figure at 61 percent, and a new Knights of Columbus-Marist poll puts it at 62 percent—with 44 percent of Democrats against federal funding.] Kaine’s flip-flopping on the Hyde Amendment doesn’t do much to inspire moderates, nor does Clinton’s platform call to repeal Hyde—just to win over a couple of shrill acolytes on Twitter and Facebook—jibe with a number of people on either side of the issue.

That part of the platform is truly mystifying. You can argue over how effective the Hyde Amendment is, but at least it recognizes the complexity of the issue in moral terms. Kaine and Clinton’s duplicitous stances on the issue, along with small hyper-partisan segments of the platform, seems to do justice to the old adage: “If you try to please everyone you end up pleasing no one.”

Do you think the Hyde Amendment should be repealed? Drop us a note to make your case. Meanwhile, a reader muses:

I truly don’t understand how someone can be “personally opposed” to abortion but vote to allow it or support or fund it. I mean, this distinction makes sense for some issues like drugs. I personally oppose heroin use but I don’t care if other people use heroin. But the reason people oppose abortion is they think the fetus is a human life, or that it might be. I do not see how someone can sincerely believe that, yet still vote to allow or support or fund abortion.

Just to be clear, I totally understand someone who believes the fetus is just a group of cells and has no moral problem with abortion. I get that point of view. My befuddlement is with people who claim to be “personally opposed” but don’t try to vote against it. That’s like saying you are “personally opposed” to slavery, but you are going to fight for the Confederacy.

Update from a reader, Timo Kim:

Your reader apparently doesn’t understand how someone can be personally opposed to abortion but still vote to allow it or fund it. Let me help him/her understand.

I am definitely not certain that human life begins at conception. So far as I know, science hasn’t come to a clear definition on human life. For that matter, viruses still confound many of our intuitions and definitions on what life, human or otherwise, is. But I admit the possibility that human life might begin at conception; that alone gives me pause about anyone’s clarity on the abortion issue (my own most of all).

Even if we were to say that fetuses are only full humans after birth, I don’t know if I value all such “human” life equally. The idealist in me wants to believe that all human life is equally precious, or, more succinctly, sacred. The pragmatist in me, however, realizes that if I had to save a random human or someone who is brain-dead, or someone with advanced dementia, I could make that choice relatively easily, even if I wouldn’t feel good about it afterwards. I in fact feel I would also choose to take a brain-dead person off of life support rather than to abort a fetus that has reached viability.

But, I see extremely intractable and nontrivial problems with declaring human life begins at conception. Fetal personhood necessarily involves extending negligence, assault, murder, and a whole host of other criminal concepts into the relationship between a mother and her fetus. Does a mother who decides to take one glass of wine commit assault? Does the severity of the matter depend on the level of fetal development (as the potential damage does)?

More importantly, do we want to start reimagining the power of the state to encroach on these categories of human experience? And if we overcome that philosophical hurdle, how would we begin creating the institutions to enforce that power (and finding the money to do so)?

That logic covers the wholesale banning of abortions. It is an impermissible extension of governmental power and it rests on logical underpinnings that lead to other perverse conclusions. But recognizing that doesn’t mean that the philosophical challenges of fetal personhood or the determination of human life have suddenly been wiped away or resolved.

In sum, it is logical that we should appreciate and hold tightly to greater understanding, flexibility, and accommodation for the moral choices of others than we should for our own, because the familiarity with our own specific circumstances, and by extension, our ignorance of those of others, means that we can be comfortable making choices for ourselves that we are not comfortable making for others.

I am personally opposed to abortion. I would like to live a world with free/low-cost birth control, with effective sexual education beginning at an early stage, with a strong social safety net that provides resources for mothers, so that women have choices about their pregnancies and don’t have to feel that abortion is the least bad choice among a number of terrible choices (not that I believe that all, most, or even many women who have abortions feel this way). But I don’t live in that world, and so I will vote every time, no question, for politicians that support a woman’s right to choose.