by Wendy McElroy
Do Canadian taxpayers have a right to freedom of religion? It is a neglected question that underlies two political conflicts in health care.
In the United States, pro-life individuals and groups passionately object to Obamacare’s mandated funding of health care insurance that includes abortion-inducing drugs. In Canada, there is a parallel. A pharmaceutical company has applied to Health Canada in order to sell the controversial abortion-drug mifepristone (RU-486). Taken orally, RU-486 induces a chemically-induced or “medical abortion” within the first nine weeks of pregnancy. Pro-life groups argue strongly against expanding abortion in Canada through adopting a new drug.
Unlike the United States, Canada does not restrict abortion by criminal law; the limiting factors are federal funding and provincial policies. For example, one of the federal controls is the need to have a drug approved for use by Health Canada. Abortifacient drugs are currently available but RU-486 is considered “the gold standard” of abortifacient birth control. Because of its effectiveness and comparative convenience, it is used in more than fifty countries. Thus a demand for RU-486 has become part of the pro-choice argument that women must be granted free access to abortions or else they are being denied their medical ‘rights’ as Canadians. It has also become a point of resistance for those who have moral or religious objections to abortion but whose tax dollars finance the procedure.
RU-486 has renewed the debate on abortion in Canada. It is a multi-faceted argument that involves dramatically different views on such key issues as individual rights, the role of women in society, religion, and morality. One issue is rarely mentioned, however. It is, “should people with deep religious objections to abortion be forced to violate their conscience by supporting the procedure through taxes?” The question hinges on the propriety of socialized medical itself. After all, if people paid for their own medical care, then the question of conscience would not arise.
How people answer cross over the usually political lines. For example, as a pro-choice advocate, I support a woman’s right to abort at her own expense and with the cooperation of whomever chooses to assist her. Nevertheless I reject tax-funded abortions and the compelling of ‘cooperation’ from anyone who objects. Objectors have as much right to walk away from abortion as women have the right to seek one.
When “a woman’s body, a woman’s right” is used to force people to violate their own conscience, it creates a contradiction. It creates a situation in which granting the rights of some involves destroying the rights of others. And, yet, a genuine right is universal; it is enjoyed in the same manner and to the same degree by everyone. If freedom of conscience is a universal right, then the peaceful exercise of one person’s religious beliefs in no way negates the ability of everyone else to exercise their own. The key word is peaceful. And taxes are not.
In the United States, the conflict between tax-funded abortions and freedom of religion is being clearly enunciated. Pro-life groups are not merely arguing against abortion but also against being coerced into contributing to abortion. Perhaps the nuanced argument reflects the fact that Obamacare is a fresh issue with all aspects under a microscope. Or perhaps it reflects the fact that tax-funded abortifacients is an issue that is not yet decided; the last word rests in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court and how it rules on key cases.
In Canada, however, tax-funding is not debated because socialized medicine is a given. Instead pro-life arguments tend to revolve around the health risks of RU-486 even though the arguments clearly contain moral and religious concerns. For example, Jack Fonseca, project manager for the Campaign Life Coalition, cites a 2001 clinical trial in which a woman died of toxic shock. RU-486 was not approved as a result. The pro-life doctors’ group, Canadian Physicians for Life also urged Health Canada to reject the application because “[t]his is death we are talking about, not just of the unborn babies but sometimes of the mothers themselves.” The term “unborn babies,” as opposed to “fetuses” indicates the unaddressed moral concern. Perhaps Canadian pro-life advocates believe that women’s health is the only ground upon which they can win the debate. Perhaps they are correct.
Nevertheless, the issue of freedom of religion v. tax-funding needs to be aired. Socialized medicine has placed religious freedom in conflict with the alleged right of women to have an abortion. It is not. What would be a violation? When pro-life protesters block a woman’s ability to enter an abortion clinic, their obstruction blocks her rights. Simply refusing to participate in an abortion, however, does not deprive a woman of anything she can properly claim as a ‘right’. No one has the right to medical care at the expense of someone else, especially not at the expense of their conscience. Tax-funded abortions are not a right; they are an entitlement that violates rights.