Choice and coercion

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In a typical election year, a maximum of a half-dozen referendum questions are presented to voters on Election Day. In the past year, as many as 22 propositions had a chance to make the cut for an upcoming Massachusetts election cycle. Still, only six ballot questions, along with a single state constitutional amendment, tallied enough certified voter signatures to move forward. Assuming they clear some additional hurdles, initiatives facing voters in 2016 will include increasing the number of Charter Schools, legalizing “recreational” marijuana use, and repealing Common Core. Targeted for the 2018 ballot is a constitutional amendment to levy a surtax on million dollar incomes, but the goal of amending the state constitution requires a far more rigorous process.

When that November 2018 election comes around, the citizens of Massachusetts will miss the opportunity to vote on one other constitutional measure: one that would have allowed for the possibility of modifying or ending taxpayer funding of abortion. Sponsored by the Massachusetts Alliance to Stop Public Funding of Abortion, the draft amendment stated: “No provision of this constitution shall be construed as requiring the public funding of abortion.” The amendment did not require the legislature to stop funding abortion. It simply made the funding of abortion subject to the normal democratic process.

Unfortunately, the Alliance came up short of the 64,750 signatures needed for ballot placement. As a result, pro-life Massachusetts taxpayers will be required to subsidize abortion indefinitely – and without legislative debate on the issue.

Pro-lifers are confronted with the seemingly contradictory goals of contemporary liberalism. On social issues, liberalism often favors policies that expand the spheres of both the individual and the government.

Nothing better reflects these conflicting tendencies than the question of abortion. The word “choice” suggests that the autonomy of the individual triumphs over the expansion of government power. Yet, in order to call oneself “pro-choice” in today’s cultural environment, a politician must not only support legalized abortion, he or she must favor government funding and promotion of abortion at taxpayer expense. And so, while they are all for “choice” when it comes to the decision to have an abortion, many politicians and abortion rights activists reject out of hand the idea giving pro-life citizens any choice as to whether their government pays for the practice. It’s a kind of political contortionist act hidden under the euphemism of “choice.” The unspoken slogan insists on “choice for me, but not for thee.”

In Massachusetts, those who advocate heavy-handed government action have the added advantage of a Supreme Judicial Court decision mandating public funding of abortion. This prevents the legislature, the governor, the attorney general, and the voters from having any say in the matter. As the Alliance to Stop Public Funding of Abortion discovered, the court’s constitutional interpretation erects significant barriers to immediate pro-life political action.

The initial barrier demands the collecting tens of nearly 65,000 certified voters’ signatures. In order to account for invalid signatures, most efforts aim to acquire around 100,000 total signatures, since many are invalidated during the certification process. That number represents a challenging, but hardly impossible, burden. Still, it’s sufficiently difficult that relatively few proposed referendum questions ever make their way onto a Massachusetts ballot.

Most often, signature drives begin with generous funding and active support from statewide groups or institutions such as businesses or labor unions. In fact, well-heeled groups hire professional signature collectors to fill up their petitions. Regardless of their funding levels, successful signature drives for the 2016 election boasted the support of an SEIU health care workers union, the Humane Society, and marijuana and gambling-related interest groups.

The recent proposed abortion funding referendum lacked both big money and critical institutional backing.

“To say we ran on a shoestring budget,” said Alliance director Tom Harvey, “exaggerates the point. We had no budget. I had a cell phone, a web address, and lots of shoe leather. We did have many great volunteers who stood at churches and shopping centers asking for signatures. Those dedicated volunteers deserve all the credit for anything we managed to accomplish.”

What they did accomplish was gathering 25,258 certified signatures in two short months. In the context of a newly-founded organization with zero budget, the effort seems more impressive — Harvey calls it “amazing” — than the raw numbers.

Never one to shy from a task, Harvey said he plans to maintain the Alliance and try again in a future election cycle. “I believe this policy is fundamentally unfair,” Harvey stressed. “Why should pro-life citizens be forced to pay for something we find so profoundly wrong? I think the Alliance will have something to say about this in the future; we really have no alternative but to try again. We’ve learned a lot about the process this time, and we’ll be out there again with our petitions, until we get on the ballot.”

With an effective signature drive, the earliest date the abortion funding amendment can appear is November 2020. Yet other barriers remain. It’s unlikely that the legal or political environment in Massachusetts will be different than it is today, when virtually all significant judicial and elective offices are occupied by pro-choice lawyers or politicians. Polling data and election results continually indicate that the state’s electorate remains predominantly pro-choice. Yet, national polls say that voters generally oppose taxpayer funding of abortion, even when their position on the overall issue is more evenly divided. The Alliance intends to test that question at the polls. Until then, state policy will continue to grant taxpayer-funded privileges to some, while circumscribing the conscience rights of others.

Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read his previous columns here.