Now, anti-abortion activists are threatening to join their ranks if abortion is offered as a standard benefit in the health-care plan being considered in Congress.
"To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical," said James Smith, Washington representative for the Southern Baptist Convention, quoting Thomas Jefferson.
Asking abortion opponents to help fund abortions "is a violation of the very essence of freedom of conscience," Smith said. If such a thing happens, he added, "I'm sure there will be some Southern Baptists who will seriously contemplate some form of civil disobedience."
An estimated 1.5 million abortions are performed each year in the United States. Two-thirds of private insurance plans now cover abortions, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based research group that supports abortion rights.
The federal Medicaid program has not paid for the abortions of poor women, except in extreme circumstances, since 1977. Thirteen states, including New Jersey, do provide funding.
Health-care reform could nullify the restriction. Under President Clinton's plan, all women would be offered a benefits package that would include abortion. Employers also would be required to help pay for abortion services by providing insurance for their workers.
The cost of abortion represents a tiny portion of health-care spending. Even if taxpayers paid for every abortion in the United States, the cost would amount to $1 out of every $4,000 in the federal budget. Yet there are few more emotional issues in the health-care debate.
"It had to be included," said Laurence O'Connell, head of a think tank in Chicago called the Park Ridge Center for Health, Faith, and Ethics. But O'Connell, who served on a working group for the President's health-care package, understands the fixation with the question of abortion.
"It goes to the very heart of what people sense is human," he said.
To feminists, any health-care plan worthy of the name must include abortion services and help for women who cannot afford to end an unwanted pregnancy.
Since an early-term abortion can cost more than $250, or most of a poor family's monthly welfare allotment, about 20,000 Medicaid-eligible poor women now carry unwanted pregnancies to term each year, said Rachel Gold, a policy analyst with the Guttmacher Institute.
Protesters may talk about tax resistance, said Marcy Wilder, legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. But the issue to her is really about women and who has power over their bodies.
"We don't think a small group of anti-abortion activists should be able to
deny coverage for abortion services to all women in America," she said.
Jeannie Rosoff, president of the Guttmacher Institute, said abortion opponents already were helping to pay for abortions through private insurance
"If you belong to an HMO that covers 100,000 people, your money goes into a pool and you are paying for other people's abortions now," Rosoff said.
But a government using public funds to guarantee access to abortion would cross a terrible line, according to Steven McFarland, director of the conservative Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. His employer has chosen an HMO with strict limits on abortion coverage. He said he feared that government mandates would take away that choice.
In levying taxes, he wondered, "isn't there a place for respecting issues that are life-and-death issues?"
He said he recognized the potential for havoc that tax resistance has.
"Can a free society afford to give exemptions on the basis of religious conviction? Think about the implications."
Yet in McFarland's internal debate between conscience and practicality, his conscience gets the last word.
"Somebody's just as dead whether I pulled the trigger or wrote a check to the government that pays for someone to pull the vacuum extractor. That child or Viet Cong is still dead."
For his part, Bishop Balke uses Thoreau to explain his position. Refusing to pay a poll tax as a protest against slavery, Thoreau asked, "Is there not a sort of bloodshed when the conscience is wounded?"