The Abortion Debate as a Budget Debate

Published September 11, 2015

National Review Online

You really ought to watch or read this extraordinary speech about abortion and Planned Parenthood that Utah senator Mike Lee delivered on the Senate floor Wednesday. In what he says was the first in a series of floor speeches on the subject, Lee laid out the basic meaning and importance of the Planned Parenthood videos for the continuing struggle to protect the lives of the unborn. It’s powerfully argued, as usual, and it raises some crucial questions for Republicans as they contemplate an effort to make Planned Parenthood ineligible for federal funds—an effort that could well end in a government shutdown fight this fall.

As Lee suggests, the power of the Planned Parenthood videos is in their potential to move more Americans to confront the realities of our abortion regime. The videos don’t really teach pro-lifers much that we didn’t know, or transform of our understanding of Planned Parenthood. That company’s core business is the systematic termination of the lives of several hundred thousand children each year before they can be born (or in some cases just after). That much is not news to us, and it is surely more disturbing than even Planned Parenthood’s involvement in the illicit sale of those children’s organs after abortion.

But although these tapes do not teach pro-lifers much about Planned Parenthood, they have the potential to help the broader public (and compel defenders of the abortion industry) to confront the realities of abortion in America. Even some of those who have hardened their hearts to the essential inhumanity of the practice of abortion itself seem still to be capable of being shocked by the grisly trading in parts that sometimes follows and by the brutal callousness abortion seems to engender in some of its practitioners. That shock is an opening, an opportunity to help more people see the truth and let it change them. The defenders of abortion in the public square can see that opening, and it is why their response has been to try to bury the controversy and ignore the tapes. As Lee noted:

The evidence points to only one conclusion: Planned Parenthood really does these horrifying things – and makes money at it, and laughs about it over lunch.

But aside from the primary evidence, Mr. President, do you know how else we know it’s true?

Because if it were false, we would know for sure. The mainstream media – Big Abortion’s loudest shoe-banger of them all – would be thundering Planned Parenthood’s vindication from every headline, every homepage, every network satellite. If the videos were false, Mr. President – if a pro-life group somehow fabricated this narrative of Planned Parenthood’s greed, barbarism, and cruelty – it would be a story.

Who are we kidding? It would be the story: a career-making scoop, with fame and Pulitzer Prizes and lucrative book deals and speaking tours awaiting the journalist who broke it.

And yet, if you open a newspaper, click on the legacy media sites, and turn on the news… nothing. The major networks have gone dark on the videos over the last month. And major newspapers have scrubbed the scandal from their front pages.

Why the silence? Simple. They know it’s true, too. The media looked for the facts, and they found them, and they turned away. In the case of the Planned Parenthood undercover videos in the court of public opinion (as they taught me in law school), qui tacit consentire videtur: the media’s silence indicates their consent.

Everyone who has watched these videos knows that they have the power to change minds – and only in one direction. So the pro-abortion news media is doing everything they can to suppress the videos’ exposure.

So tightly have the wagons been circled, Mr. President, that the media can’t even attack the Center for Medical Progress as much as they would surely like to. Because doing so would require context. And even describing these videos – even mentioning them to a wider audience – would only lead to curious Google searches, then Tweets, and Facebook shares, and YouTube views. And inevitably, to public horror at what people would see, and the organization responsible.

This way of understanding the meaning and potential of this moment in the abortion debate brings into sharp relief the question now confronting Congress about the proper place of the Planned Parenthood controversy in the coming budget fight.

The instinct to respond to the tapes by forcing a shutdown over the federal funds that Planned Parenthood clinics can get through Title X and Medicaid is understandable and appropriate. Title X is not supposed to make funds available to abortion providers, but Planned Parenthood gets around the legal prohibition by formally separating its abortion clinics and its other family planning services, even when those are located in the same facility and essentially funded jointly. When states have tried to limit Planned Parenthood’s access to Medicaid funds, meanwhile, the Obama administration has told them they can’t, even though federal law prohibits federal Medicaid dollars from funding abortion.

In both cases, federal dollars are being spent in ways that contravene the intent and spirit of the legal prohibitions on federal funding of abortion provision, and the biggest beneficiary by far is Planned Parenthood (which has been for many years, for instance, the largest single recipient of Title X money). Pro-lifers should obviously want that to end, the shocking content of the Planned Parenthood videos makes the continuing taxpayer funding of that organization all the more galling, and the controversy resulting from the videos would seem to offer an opportunity to stop that funding.

There is little question that Democrats will staunchly resist any effort to deny funding to Planned Parenthood, and given a Democratic president and enough pro-abortion Democrats in Congress to sustain a veto, there is little doubt they would take that fight to a shutdown if Republicans propose to deny such funds in the budget. The question is what Republicans should do then. And the answer should be based on what would best advance the larger pro-life cause.

A government shutdown, as we have seen over the last several decades, is not generally an effective way to win the argument that precipitated the shutdown. Rather, it is an effective way to change the subject from that argument to government funding. When the subject that precipitated the argument actually is government funding (as it has been in several shutdown fights over fiscal issues since the 1990s), there is at least a plausible case to be made for a shutdown as a substantive tool for advancing policy aims. Even that has rarely worked, but it sometimes has. If, however, the goal is to focus the public’s attention on an argument about a subject other than spending per se, then a shutdown is likely to be a much more effective tool for those who want to change the subject than for those who want to win the argument.

The pro-life movement can only achieve the ultimate victories it seeks by changing the hearts and minds of Americans who now support our abortion regime or are indifferent to it. That means the most important goal of the pro-life movement is persuasion. And effective persuasion on moral questions in the public life of our wonderfully, almost preternaturally, moderate and level-headed republic is often a matter of highlighting the extremism and unreasonableness of the other party to the argument. This is not a difficult task for pro-lifers: Our opponents insist upon the unlimited practice of abortion through birth—the most extreme abortion regime in the developed world—and even want the public (only a small portion of which supports unlimited abortion on demand) to endorse and fund the practice. In the case before us, pro-life Republicans are merely working to withhold affirmative public financial support from an organization devoted to this practice and the liberal legal regime around it while pro-abortion Democrats are apparently willing to shut down the rest of the government to ensure that support ultimately continues.

Republicans should be looking to carry out this fight in a way that best highlights the radicalism of their opponents and moves as many Americans as possible to confront the reality of abortion in America and its attendant horrors. The future of the pro-life cause depends not on how the specific effort to defund Planned Parenthood this year ends up but on how that larger struggle to sharpen and clarify the public’s understanding of what this debate is about ends up. So the narrow fight of the moment should be taken up with an eye to its effect on the larger cause. Pro-life Republicans should want to conclude this fight having strengthened their broader argument against abortion and their larger effort to expose the remorseless radicalism of its champions to the public.

That end does not will its own means, of course, and it is far from obvious how Republicans should proceed. Maybe a shutdown fight, which even if it would change the subject would surely also draw some attention to the Planned Parenthood videos, is ultimately the best way forward. It is highly unlikely to end with Planned Parenthood defunded, but you never know.

But if Republicans approach such a fight focused sharply on the aim of drawing attention to the extremism of abortion advocates, they might find some creative ways to start and end the argument on their terms. They could, to take one example, propose a continuing resolution that denies federal funds to Planned Parenthood, and then, when Democrats filibuster that measure, Republicans could demand to include language in a revised continuing resolution (shorn of the defunding language) that, in the style of a finding or resolution of condemnation, plainly states that a majority of the Congress believes federal funds should not flow to Planned Parenthood because the organization commits hundreds of thousands of abortions per year and has been found to be engaged in deplorable trafficking in human organs, that a minority of the Congress and President Obama threaten to shut down the government rather than withhold such funding, and that the majority has therefore agreed for this year to abide their extremism for the sake of keeping the government functioning but looks forward to a time when taxpayers are not compelled by a radical minority to support inhumanity. They might then list the names of the members who want to deny federal money to Planned Parenthood, and those who don’t.

Such a measure would make it difficult for the press to ignore the facts about Planned Parenthood and the videos that precipitated the controversy. It would not be easy for the president to shut down the government just to withhold his signature from such language. And if he did, it would only draw more attention to the underlying controversy—since all the measure would do would be to put some plain facts on the record. It would really require Democrats to shut down the government just to keep the country’s eyes closed to what Planned Parenthood is, and this would be no easy feat.

Of course, such an approach would not defund Planned Parenthood, and so would effectively acquiesce to the Democrats’ substantive extremism. It would involve starting a shutdown fight without intending to end it with a shutdown (as Ramesh Ponnuru and Ben Domenech have also suggested in recent days), and not even keeping that a secret. But public funding for Planned Parenthood constitutes a tiny fraction of what is wrong with America’s abortion regime. It has gone on (and Republicans have voted for budgets that persisted in it because they could not change it) for decades. Elevating the fight about it is important now as a way to raise the visibility of some of the most gruesome aspects of abortion, to open the public’s eyes to the extremism of abortion’s champions, and to force those champions to more openly avow their real priorities. Doing so would make the funding of Planned Parenthood abidingly controversial, might move pro-life presidential candidates to vow to end such funding (by, for instance, reinstating a Reagan Administration rule that sought to do so and was upheld by the Supreme Court but then undone by the Clinton administration), and would make defunding much more likely to happen when there is actually a genuine opportunity to do it. By keeping their larger goal in mind, Republicans could achieve much more than they would by just stopping public grants to Planned Parenthood this year, while if they lose sight of that larger goal they might achieve much less than even just defunding.

This is just one general kind of option that Republicans might consider. There are certainly others. But however they proceed, they should strive to advance the crucial long-term goals of the pro-life movement, and to hasten the country’s progress toward protecting and respecting every life.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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