A different kind of choice


Why does real choice so often annoy pro-choicers? It is always interesting to witness the reactions on campus to the Society for Law, Life and Religion’s annual rebate program of health service fees that fund elective abortions. The Harkbox drive usually sparks a series of angry editorials and offensive emails, and last year even motivated some students to steal the completed rebate forms.

This year, the irritation has surfaced in last week’s opinion column by Greg Lipper, who expends several hundred words mocking the rebate program and the intentions of those who organize it.

Lipper’s first attack is easily refuted. He argues that pro-lifers are hypocritical because, if they were really concerned with saving lives, they would drop out of school and use their tuition money for “feeding starving orphans.” The rebate campaign, he maintains, is thus a dishonest attempt at ‘feel-good’ social activism by students who have actually embraced selfish materialism along with everyone else. Indeed, Lipper seems to take pride in his tolerance of unethical “resource allocation” as a courageous recognition of “life’s complexities.”

Lipper’s objection could be applied to almost any social action at HLS. By his logic, if the students at HL Central really cared about poor families, they would not limit themselves to a Thanksgiving turkey drive but would drop out of school and donate their tuition money to Boston’s struggling families. The absurdity of is readily apparent.

While one way of helping the poor is certainly to sell all belongings and work in a shelter, there are many other ways to pursue social justice. One of these is to become a lawyer, judge or politician who can exert influence on the future shape of our society. This is surely the hope of many of the participants in SLLR’s rebate program, who remain convinced that their voices matter, and who are dedicated enough to certain values and ideals that they take the time to engage even in a symbolic expression of their beliefs to the administration.

Yet Lipper also raises a serious question on which reasonable people can disagree. Should students be able to opt out of funding decisions made by the administration? After all, such a policy could lead to an untenable “cafeteria” tuition plan where nit-picky individual choices could paralyze effective governance.

The issue reminds me of cases where students have claimed a First Amendment right to prevent their public school tuition payments from funding student groups with which they disagree. Two years ago, the Supreme Court held in Board of Regents v. Southworth that a public university may in fact use mandatory student fees to fund such groups, as long as the funds are disbursed in a viewpoint neutral manner — that is, if the university funds all groups that comply with certain objective criteria.

If public schools can use our funds to support causes we dislike, then private schools can certainly do so. As a private institution, Harvard has no obligation to be viewpoint neutral in funding student groups or health services, and it could refuse to give SLLR participants their tiny symbolic refund of health service fees. Yale did exactly that last year, when it extended prescription coverage to the “abortion pill” RU-846, and refused a refund to Yale students for the portion of their mandatory health service fees used to cover the drug.

I am sympathetic to the “parade of horrors” argument that if we allow a refund for abortion funding, then we will have to allow a refund for every quirky belief. However, I disagree. Abortion funding is unlike most other issues on which students may have diverse opinions, because few other practices so immediately involve students in what they may believe to be outright, cold murder.

What other issue could cause the astonishing range of negative emotions that some people seem to experience at receiving one sheet of paper in their Harkboxes which they can simply throw away? Abortion is an issue that many people prefer not to think about, and their comfortable escapism is momentarily pierced when they see the word “abortion” next to the picture of a cute baby. For some students, the paper is also surely the reminder of a very unfortunate and painful personal choice.

Thus, Lipper would doubtless be happier if the university refused to even acknowledge through a refund program that abortion may be considered an unparalleled horror by some of his classmates. Yet I for one am glad to belong to a university that does not require me violate my most deeply held moral beliefs.

Lipper’s column may be found at: