Last week, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, one of the most popular breast cancer awareness and support charities, decided not to continue to provide funds to Planned Parenthood, claiming that they are not permitted to contribute to any organization that is currently under federal organization. Planned Parenthood, it turns out, is currently under federal investigation. The charge is using federal funds to provide abortion services. Planned Parenthood has repeatedly been accused of this, and repeatedly been found not guilty. One would imagine that at this point, they know this is something that matters to people, and they have their bases covered.
This might seem like an opportunity to talk about the morality of abortion, including whether federal tax dollars should go to paying for some of them. It might also seem like an opportunity to mention the important difference between the morality of an action, and the permissibility of legislating against it. My own view is that many abortions, though not all, are morally wrong, but that women should still have the right to decide what is best for themselves and their own unborn children. Sometimes, the state should let people do things that are morally wrong. I won’t argue for any of that here, though that’s more or less my view on the issue.
Instead, I want to point out that there is a fundamental inconsistency between holding a position that is generally “pro-choice,” while deriding the free decision of a charitable organization to do what they wish with their own funds. To put it simply, if one places a high premium on choice, one must be prepared to allow others, even charitable organizations with noble ends in mind, to make choices with which we do not agree.
Here’s the issue. Presumably, at least some of the people who oppose the Komen foundation’s decision do so because they believe that Planned Parenthood provides vital services, including abortions, that everyone has a right to opt for if they so choose. No doubt not all who oppose the Komen foundation’s decision feel this way, but I imagine this is a common view among those who are now sending envelopes full of cash to Planned Parenthood in response. Presumably, the ethical principle at work is something like “We ought to allow people to make choices about how to conduct their own lives.” There will no doubt be additional caveats regarding harm to other persons, but the general notion is that choice is something we ought to promote, unless we have really good reasons to limit it.
However, if what one values is choice, how can one be pro-choice, yet anti-Komen foundation in this case? The Komen Foundation made a choice about what to do with their own funds. If a person does not believe that the death of a fetus is sufficient reason to limit choice, what possible defense can be given for denying the Komen Foundation the right to choose what to do with their own money?
Perhaps there is something that can be said. One might point to the invaluable services that Planned Parenthood provides to poor women, and mention that the loss of these services and the deaths that they prevent is far worse than the death of a single, non-sentient fetus. There may be something to this, and it might be the case that one can coherently oppose the Komen foundation’s choice in this case, while still defending the importance of choice in general, by appeal to sweeping and terrible consequences of Planned Parenthood’s loss of funding, mostly affecting the very poor.
My point is simply this. Avoiding inconsistency in one’s ethical outlook is not an easy thing to do, and it is easy to be swept up in vague ideologies like “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” It is only by thinking carefully about the views we hold, and beginning to think about them in terms of principles, that we can begin to work through the apparent inconsistencies that are pervasive within the contemporary American political landscape. Unless we do so, we inevitably find ourselves doing things like deriding a decision that is paradigmatic of the free choice ideology that we claim to revere. While ethics is a matter of much debate, the logical implications of inconsistency are not up for grabs.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.