Compassion, Choice and the Constitution

I have not been as active an educator as I’d like these days. My mother took a fall in November, and the time came for her to move into assisted living after several years of frequent ER visits and concern over her nutrition and other activities of daily living. Assisted living is something of a misnomer, I’ve discovered, because even with all of the assistance she has there I have needed to completely take over her finances, her home, her medical appointments, and advocacy with the staff.

I was treated well as a child – my parents took good care of me and ensured I would grow up to be an educated, responsible woman. My mom even sowed the seeds of feminism into my young soul. Yet I would not consider myself close to my mom, despite having weekly contact with her. In fact I’ve only survived the emotional rigors of her care by thinking of her as a client rather than as a parent. She can be a difficult person, and I’ll leave it at that.

Legally, I could walk away from her. There are no filial laws in this state; I could leave her to deal all alone with the IRS, with her many pains, with people who would take advantage of her. As an adult she has the right to her own decisions and the right to the consequences of those decisions. She has no “right” to be cared for under the Constitution. Yet Mom would surely have died, at one point several years ago, had I not stepped in.  I care for her out of love and moral responsibility, what the old fashioned call “duty.”

Another group that has no “right” to care is the unborn up to 20 weeks of gestation, according to Roe v. Wade. Those who advocate for greater access to abortion say that the care of the preborn infant – the provision of life support, when you get right down to it – should be the choice of the woman in whose uterus the baby resides. These women want to be able to walk away. Those who advocate a right to life find that appalling. It is most certainly as morally wrong to abort your infant child as it is to abandon a parent. Yet many women do so because it’s easier to abdicate responsibility if no one knows you had it in the first place.

The third group that has few rights in this regard are immigrants. I hesitate to say they have no rights under the law, but the far right has a point when they say foreign nationals have no “right” to cross our borders. In fact, the Washington lawsuit against Mr. Trump’s executive order banning entry to nationals of 7 countries was successful because they argued that it is the businesses in our state that have the right to employ them once they become legal, and that to allow them entry and then capriciously deny it to them hurts these companys’ chances for success. It’s an impediment to commerce. The only “right” these immigrants have is spelled out in a 1965 law that states the U.S. must not discriminate in allowing entry based on religion or nation of origin. This is the law that prioritized familial relationships over national quotas. It kept us from preferring Northern Europeans above all others and has greatly improved the level of melanin in our national skin tone. Given that only 7 Muslim nations were named, however; it will be difficult to prove that the intent of the EO was to discriminate against Muslims.

What do these groups have in common? The elderly, the unborn, and the alien have no right to our care under the Constitution. We show who we are as a people by how we treat those who need us. We have a moral imperative to accompany the elderly on their final journey, to support new life until it can support itself, and to welcome the alien until they become one of us.

And yet, there is a difference. You see, even if no law protects the elderly and the unborn, we can choose as citizens to act according to our best instincts. No one can prevent me from caring for Mom. No one could have forced me to kill the child in my womb. In those situations it is good to have a choice. There are people who were abused or abandoned by their parents, surely we can’t force them to care, just as we can’t really force a woman to bear the child of rape or incest, or to bear a child that could destroy her health were it to come to full term. That’s why we have those choices, because we don’t know the particulars of everyone’s circumstances. We can still be a nation that does the right thing no matter what the law says.

Surely there are situations that would prevent us from welcoming everyone into our country, hence we give that choice to our executive. We, as individuals, cannot legally welcome the stranger without the permission of the government. We can be prevented from doing good by the stroke of a pen. Supported by people who, in their xenophobia, fear the stranger more than they fear drunken Axelrod with his massive gun collection, the president can shut down our boarders to people fleeing violence. In doing so, he’s ensured that only our own will kill us, that’s certain. But he has also shut out the doctor that could save us, the engineer who may fix the bug in your computer, the future teachers, restaurant owners, cleaners, farmers and everyone else who just needs a safe place to start over. By exercising his choice, he has taken away ours. We can’t do the right thing until he does.