Legislature’s family planning bill contemptible

In a bid to accomplish indirectly what the Supreme Court has forbidden it from doing directly, a Minnesota House committee voted last week to cut off state family planning grants from groups that counsel women about abortion options or display abortion literature in their facilities. While the morality of abortion remains a matter for debate on which reasonable people have principled disagreements, the Supreme Court has settled the question of abortion’s constitutionality, and for this reason the House committee’s action should be disturbing to all Minnesotans, regardless of their opinions on the abortion question itself.

“We are not stopping these organizations with what they do,” said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, the bill’s co-author. “We are just changing the appropriations of funds.”

But this cynical word game cannot disguise the fact that, in an age when Congress and state legislatures collect and distribute hundreds of billions of dollars to promote or impede particular social policies, there is no such thing as “just” changing the appropriation of government money.

Placing conditions on the receipt of government money is not a mandate in the pure sense of the word, but the purpose of such conditions is to encourage the potential recipients of state funds to comply with the Legislature’s wishes. It is beyond dispute, if lawmakers did not intend for those recipients to conform to the Legislature’s will in an attempt to maintain their funding, legislators would not have put conditions on their appropriations in the first place.

The Supreme Court, in its parallel consideration of what conditions Congress may place on grants to states, has repeatedly found that if a government incentive is large enough, it amounts to compulsion and cannot be justified solely by the argument that compliance with the condition is nominally “voluntary.” Thus, the Supreme Court has held that a congressional condition on government money may not encourage recipient states to take unconstitutional actions to receive the money.

The Legislature should impose this sensible requirement on itself and put a stop to this family planning bill’s unconstitutional requirements. If the Legislature can require family planning groups to refrain from presenting the constitutional option of abortion to their clients, nothing will prevent a similar bill from, for example, withholding funds for public defenders’ offices unless their clients waive their rights to jury trials or appeals.

Once the Legislature is allowed to put a price tag on every constitutional right and provide government aid only to citizens who “voluntarily” give away the liberties protecting them from that government’s power, our free society will, with little difficulty, be reduced to submission under a godfather state that grants favors only at the price of a lifetime of unreserved submission to its designs.