Sunday, November 20, 2011

Arizona’s Anti-Abortion Tax Credit Law Violates Free Speech, Endangers Vulnerable Women

Arizona recently passed HR 2384, a law that restricts the Working Poor Tax Credit Program. The program provides matching tax credits to citizens who donate to organizations that benefit the working poor. The new legislations prevents the program from providing these tax credits to citizens who donate to organizations that "provide, pay for, promote, provide coverage of or provide referrals for abortions," or that financially support other organizations that participate in these activities. This sweeping restriction will cause a significant drop in funds for a wide variety of organizations and social service agencies, not just those that provide abortion care.  The law’s unintended consequences will endanger the working poor, the very people the program is meant to benefit. Because it limits what an organization’s staff can say by restricting state funding, it also limits free speech, making it clearly unconstitutional.

While this legislation is mainly aimed at taking away crucial donations from service providers such as Planned Parenthood, it will have the effect of silencing staff in all social service and community health professions. For example, shelters for domestic violence survivors or homeless youth will be forced to choose between providing full and accurate information about available medical services to their clients, and preventing a drop in funding. As a youth shelter employee, if I encountered a young woman who was homeless, pregnant, and unprepared and unwilling to become a mothers, this law would prevent me from helping her find the resources she needs. Under the new law, if this client asked me for information about how she might obtain an abortion I would be forced to keep silent, or lose the donations that keep the shelter open. This would endanger my client, as without appropriate information she would be more likely to seek an illegal abortion or try to abort her own pregnancy. Even if she eventually obtained a legal abortion, the delay in care would make the procedure more risky, as later-term abortion procedures carry heavier risks than earlier treatment.

The tax credit restriction is unconstitutional, as it violates the first amendment right of free speech. Social workers, health center employees, and other staff working for the public good should be able to provide their clients with the full extent of their knowledge of local resources. Although the law does not outlaw certain speech, it places an undue burden on the right of free speech by restricting state funds to only those organizations that agree to tailor their speech to fit the law’s specifications. When people are forced to stay silent in order to keep their jobs and protect their employers, their rights have been violated.

Those who would argue against this law posit that the law does not keep organizations from providing information about abortion, it simply assures that taxpayers are not forced to support these organizations. They claim that taxpayers should have the right not to support an organization that engages in activities they do not agree with. This type of defense of taxpayer morals has no precedent in the United States. Many anti-war advocates have tried to use just such a tactic to defund wars and violence, to no avail. Taxpayers that disagree with foreign wars, the death penalty, or sex education in public schools do not have the right to withdraw public financial support from these government-funded activities, or from organizations that support and disseminate information about them. The anti-abortion crowd should not get a special pass to dictate where every penny of their tax money goes.

The new anti-abortion tax credit law infringes on free speech rights, and ultimately endangers the lives of women and girls. This is just one more under-handed tactic that the anti-abortion movement is using to try to force its morals upon the women of Arizona, this time under the guise of protecting the rights of taxpayers. The real goal of this law is to prevent women from seeking appropriate, legal medical care by restricting the speech of those who would assist them. The measure is unconstitutional, and is currently under review by federal judge Roslyn Silver. Hopefully it will be blocked and we can all go back to doing our jobs.

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