Originally published in Artur Davis
The nasty dust-up over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s abandoned plan to rescind $700,000 in gifts to Planned Parenthood has not yielded much middle ground. The left’s view is that it has scored a major victory for women’s health and reproductive rights. Conservatives are appalled by Komen’s surrender, and enraged that the constellation of pro-choice forces in the media and political elites proved so instantly powerful and intimidating.
Each side has the short-term politics on abortion about right. The Komen group shares a bloody nose with the pro-life movement, which seemed marginalized, evasive and defensive as the week wound on. Planned Parenthood ended the week with its grant restored, and its coffers richer after a surge of new donations. I’ll venture a guess, though, that both sides on reflection will find good reasons to reassess their view of what just happened. Conservatives should appreciate that the strategy of tying dollars to an ideological agenda has become a common liberal power play, one that they should hesitate to copy. Liberals in turn will recognize that the case Planned Parenthood just made – that the recipients of their good works shouldn’t be punished for the organization’s politics — is exactly what the Catholic church will say when its policies on contraception and homosexuality come under fire from government funders.
To be sure, conservatives have not seemed to equate the decisions of a private philanthropist like Komen with the Obama administration’s efforts to deny federal Affordable Care Act dollars to Catholic hospitals if they persist in their anti-contraception practices, or Illinois’ plans to withdraw state support form Catholic adoption services if they refuse to place minors with same sex couples. To most conservatives, government conditioning its largesse on whether sectarian institutions follow official policies is a threat to First Amendment freedom, distinguishable from a private donor’s moral authority to disengage from a group whose practices it rejects.
The distinction is a real one, but it can obscure the fact that the Department of Health and Human Services and the state of Illinois have also done damage to a core conservative value – that private associations are an instrument of public good, and serve the cause of small government by filling gaps left by bureaucracies. It’s a point elegantly made by Ross Douthat in the contraception context. These associations flourish because they are drawing on the energy and loyalty of their own constituencies and their own sense of the common good. The conservative theory has generally been that if that sense of mission is threatened with the strings of an external agenda, the associations will wither and disengage.
An ardent pro-lifer has every right to conclude that Planned Parenthood’s 300,000 abortions annually corrupts its entire enterprise. But there is a class of conservatives that might concede that Planned Parenthood has secured for itself a prominent space in the field of women’s health services, and that it reaches places government couldn’t touch without getting bigger, more expensive and more intrusive. Under that view, the work that Planned Parenthood does to combat breast cancer is valuable and stands apart from its much more controversial portfolio on abortion. This, after all, is almost certainly why an organization with nonpolitical roots like Komen aligned itself with a lightning rod like Planned Parenthood in the first place.
It’s debatable, in the haze of last week’s back and forth, whether Planned Parenthood needed Komen for its breast cancer prevention efforts in the same urgent way that Chicago’s bishops need state grant money to place foster kids or Catholic hospitals need federal resources to treat indigents. But the principle of voluntary, independent associations can’t turn on the details of a balance sheet; in an era where private power can dominate a space as decisively as a public source ever could, one worried about the vigor of private associations should worry about the chilling effects from any donor. A champion of community associations should also appreciate that politicizing government grants is a means rather than an end; its coerciveness will be invoked by philanthropists on the left who will have the media support and political clout to hold their ground much more firmly than Komen did.
At least Planned Parenthood has made the case for its autonomy in a way that should inspire the Catholics who are in jeopardy of losing government funding over the church’s stances on reproduction and same sex relationships. Americans who believe that access to contraception is a fundamental right and that the church’s failure to recognize gay relationships is discriminatory aren’t shy about using the power of donor purse strings to compel others to fall into line — their cash source just invariably happens to be taxpayer dollars. If Planned Parenthood is right, though, that its noble efforts on mammograms shouldn’t be compromised, the Catholics have an equally powerful case on healthcare and adoption services. The reality is that Catholic institutions are a principal provider for inner city blacks and Latinos in numerous urban centers; similarly, the incredibly difficult work of adoption and foster placement needs every helping institutional hand it can get, including the church. Cut the purse-strings and the vulnerable and marginal will be the ones who are punished.
Back to why conservatives should be more reserved about Komen’s initial decision. The next round of culture wars will look more like the fights in Springfield and Washington. They will be waged invariably from the left, they will involve the power of funding to coerce viewpoints and they will have the undisguised agenda of favoring private associations who see things one way and diminishing those that don’t. If they win, the private, charitable sector will weaken. Conservatives ought to be very leery of imitating that agenda.