Analysis: In Defense of Planned Parenthood, Conservatives Should Avoid Inconsistent 'Fungible Funds' Argument

In efforts to "defund" Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, conservatives often argue that money going to Planned Parenthood pays for abortions, even if the money is not directly for abortions, because money is fungible. Conservatives should avoid making this argument because the same argument could be used to negatively impact religious freedom.

On Feb. 24, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law that banned Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood. The legal issue before the Court dealt with federalism. Medicaid is a federal government program that is run by the states. Medicaid costs are shared by the federal government and state governments. Federal law was unclear as to which level of government should decide which healthcare providers in a state are qualified for Medicaid reimbursements. The Court decided it was the federal government.

The impetus for passing the law in the first place, though, came from a "fungible funds" argument, which goes like this: Every dollar that goes to Planned Parenthood subsidizes abortions because money is fungible. Money that is reimbursed for a breast cancer screening, for instance, is interchangable with money that pays for an abortion. While Planned Parenthood accountants may keep the funds separate in their ledgers, this only amounts to an "accounting gimmick," they say.

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Conservatives who use this argument display an inconsistency with their defense of faith-based initiatives.

Faith-based initiatives were a cornerstone of President George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" agenda. The Bush administration reformed many government grants to make it easier for faith-based groups to compete with secular groups for the same funds. Grant money designated to help drug addicts, for instance, could go to either secular groups or religious groups. Neither side would be favored. The effectiveness of the program was what mattered.

Faith-based initiatives have been mostly bi-partisan. They were supported by the Democratic opponents in both of Bush's presidential elections - Al Gore and John Kerry. And President Barack Obama continued the programs after Bush left office.

There are some critics, though, mostly from the Left. Their argument goes like this: Faith-based initiatives are unconstitutional because money is fungible. Any government money that goes to a religious group for a government purpose, such as helping drug addicts, feeding the hungry or housing the homeless, cannot be separated from money used to support the group's religious activities, such as Bible studies and worship services. When church accountants keep the money in separate accounts, this is only an "accounting gimmick," they say.

In other words, the arguments are identical.

Accountants, though, along with bookkeepers, secretaries and anyone who has made a family budget, can designate specific money for specific purposes. It is not unusual or difficult.

One of the arguments in favor of faith-based initiatives is based upon religious freedom. The Establishment Clause (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ...) implies that government will be neutral with regard to religion. No religious group will be favored over another religious group.

For government to remain neutral, it must also avoid favoring secular groups over religious groups. Without faith-based initiatives, however, government is doing exactly that. Religious groups are left at a disadvantage when competing with secular groups for government grants.

When conservatives use the "fungible funds" argument against Planned Parenthood, therefore, they are undermining their religious freedom argument in defense of faith-based initiatives.

The conservative critics of Planned Parenthood and the liberal critics of faith-based initiatives should come to an understanding: if government is to fulfill its goals through private groups, those groups should be allowed to compete for those grants, provide the requested services, and follow appropriate accounting techniques to ensure that the money designated for a specific purpose is spent on that specific purpose.

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