When Protecting Rights Is Immoral


Trump’s travel ban.

It’s the next thing, in a long line of things, that’s getting me to think about the difference between rights and love.

As a feminist, I obviously advocate for equal rights. I think I thought that “rights” were the highest form of justice: nobody ought to cross anybody’s rights, and once rights are “equal,” the fight’s pretty much over. Taking a stand for “rights” is always the ethical position, I assumed.

But I kept bumping up against issues and situations where ensuring “rights” not only seemed inadequate but inhumane.

The first thing was listening to pro-choice arguments. I keep a wider circle now, and the entry level pro-choice argument, the aha moment for many, is this: in no other situation is a person obligated to donate their organs, bodily tissue, or the like. It’s a noble thing to donate blood for a good cause, or give up a kidney for a dying sister, but nobody can force you to do it. You have the right to refuse. In the same way, a woman has the right to refuse “donating” her body to the fetus residing in it. It’s a noble thing to carry a fetus to term, but a woman is not obligated to do so.

Since it’s convinced so many pro-lifers to go pro-choice, I try hard to understand this argument, but frankly, I don’t. There seems to be another level of ethics beyond merely ensuring “rights” — a moral obligation that obliges you even when your “rights” excuse you. For me, that is why the pro-choice rallying cry of “my body, my choice” moves me so little.

There’s a similar attitude of “rights” when it comes to the refugee debate.

One of my friends made the connection that being pro-life involves protecting both the unborn and the refugee. Someone countered with this: “The unborn have the right not only to life, but to citizenship. Refugees do not.”

I’ve seen this sentiment in various other arguments. It boils down to “we don’t have to care, because refugees don’t have any right to be here. This is a government, after all.”

I hate this attitude that as long as it isn’t people’s “right” to our care and protection, we can turn them away, we can let them suffer, we can ignore their problems, and we can feel morally justifiable in doing so.

It’s a heartless sort of morality, a cold, technical, calculating sort of morality.

It breaks my heart, these sorts of arguments. “You don’t have to carry your child to term, so murder is totally okay.” “You don’t have to welcome refugees to your country, so sending them back to the horrors of a war-torn country after potentially robbing them of their only chance of a better future is perfectly justifiable.” “You don’t have to help that person bleeding out on the side of the road, so just walk right on by.”

Obviously, things get more complicated when it’s a government acting under moral obligation rather than individual citizens, and we can debate to what extent governments as governments fall under moral obligation to welcome refugees, especially if and when it threatens the safety of its citizens.

Obviously, things are more complicated when conflicting obligations cross paths, period — like choosing between the life of the mother and the child, or stopping to pick up a hitchhiker when you’re a petite female with no self-defense skills, or any number of situations where it’s not clear what’s heroic, what’s stupid, and what’s unhelpful.

I don’t want to make an easy proscription of what to do or not do in all the complicated, conflicting ethical situations we face as a nation, as a pregnant woman, or as individuals in our day-to-day lives. I don’t want to simplify any of this.

But I do want us to think about the possibility of being morally obligated to do something even if it transgress our rights.

Our morality should be empathetic, human, and, yes, sacrificial. Our morality should protect not only people’s “rights,” but also people themselves.

We are morally obligated to protect and care for others even at the potential cost of our rights, even if they have no right to ask.

36 thoughts on “When Protecting Rights Is Immoral

  1. heather

    I’ve never heard that pro-choice argument before. For me the rights of a living, breathing, functioning adult woman will always supersede the rights of a potential life. If having a baby will drive her into poverty or prevent her from on getting an education or cause her physical or mental harm, then loving her means allowing her to make whatever choice she decides is right for her.


  2. Mrs. Q

    I heartily agree that this issue is complicated & beyond certain constructs like right or wrong. The ethical dilemma I have been pondering since Trumps EO is concern over refugees vs. concern over the US’s capacity to be helpful to them while being helpful to those already here.

    A few years ago my wife & I took in a homeless mother & her baby. It was a sacrifice, something you mentioned, but we felt morally obliged as Christians, or just as people who like to think of ourselves as able to do the right thing. A few months into their stay it became clear the mother was mentally unstable & her abusive ex-boyfriend was potentially a threat to our home. We were moral but we were soon living in an unstable environment & our goodness outweighed our capacity to truly give her the help she needed. Kicking her out was a horrible feeling & we still worry for that baby. But this girl was not only unstable but manipulative & we had to protect our home & family.

    Many things are better understood on a case by case basis in order to carefully scrutinize a situation. This makes for a slower moving process, but allows us to evaluate possibly more effective outcomes. No home is without walls for a reason. Most ethical people don’t want to see others harmed but still have to have a place that gives them the respite needed to be even more effective in their compassion. I think we can love & help refugees while keeping our home country protected as much as possible. How we do that is the challenge & since immigration is an issue almost as old as humanity, I suspect we won’t get it right in this generation.

    Sacrifice is a wonderful topic. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Adele

    I think you are misunderstanding the analogy between donating blood or an organ and a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. I am pro-choice and I certainly don’t feel, ““You don’t have to carry your child to term, so murder is totally okay.” A fetus is not a human being so abortion is not murder. I know the pro-life stance is “life begins at conception” but not only is this stance not scientific, it’s not necessarily Biblical. It is definitely possible for a rational person who is also Christian to come to the opposite conclusion. See the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice Protestant page for more information: http://rcrc.org/protestant/ Once we get past calling abortion murder, then the ethics versus rights conflict you present becomes more interesting. I am most certainly not pro-abortion. I don’t think it should be done casually, or as a form of birth control. I think our goal as a society should be reducing the number of abortions as much as possible. But as you say, this is not a simple question. I know you would agree with terminating an ectopic pregnancy, because the fetus has no chance of survival and if allowed to continue it will kill the mother as well as the fetus. That is a fairly cut-and-dried situation. You mention deciding between the life of the mother and the child, but that decision is not really a rare exception. Consider this: a woman is around 14 times as likely to die giving birth as she is during a legal abortion (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22270271 ) and that is before considering any factors that may make childbirth riskier for a particular woman. I may feel that is a risk well-worth taking, even for an unplanned child, but a woman should be free to evaluate the risks and make a decision for herself. Every pregnancy involves making a decision between risk to the mother and the potential possibility of a child (which is by no means a sure thing regardless of the mother’s decision – almost 1 in 3 conceptions end in spontaneous miscarriage – many before the woman even knew she was pregnant – another reason I can’t agree with the life begins at conception stance) When a woman says, “My body, my choice” I don’t believe she is demanding some sort of right to be selfish. I believe she is demanding the right to perform her own ethical analysis and perhaps come to the same conclusion you did that she is willing to attempt to carry her child to term. What she is not willing to do is let someone else take away her autonomy and make ethical decisions for her. The only time the government should attempt to enforce ethics on an individual is when the individual’s choice violates the rights of another person. A woman’s choice about her own pregnancy does not violate the rights of another person. Being pro-choice is the feminist position not because all feminists think abortion is a-ok, but because feminists believe a woman can think for herself and does not need a man, or a law, to try to force her to make a choice that appears to an outsider to be the most humane and ethical choice, but may not actually be. Not only that, but the attempts to force this decision on women through laws and restrictions can have the horrible unintended side effect of increasing loss of human life rather than decreasing it. One way this can happen: Catholic hospitals are not allowed to perform abortions even in cases of immediate threat to the woman’s life. The woman must be transferred to another hospital and women have died due to this delay. Usually the fetus dies too anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      Thank you for clarifying and expounding on the pro-choice stance. That makes more sense. I really think the fundamental argument — the real discussion worth having — is when life begins, and I appreciate you pointing me in the right direction to research that discussion from a pro-choice stance.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, Adele, perhaps you could answer this question for me: do you, as a pro-choice but not “pro-abortion” woman, see a shift in the pro-choice movement toward “pro-abortion”? During Clinton’s campaign, especially, a lot of Christians refused to vote for her because she shifted her stance from merely “pro-choice” to “pro-abortion.” Since I’m not in the movement, I didn’t really know if there actually was that sort of spectrum within it.


      • Adele

        This is an interesting question. I think there has been a shift, but I’m not sure if the stance of the majority of pro-choice people has changed or just the way both sides frame the argument. I know at least thirty years ago I was doing some sort of phone survey and I was asked if I was pro-life and I said no and then the surveyor said, “So, you’re pro-abortion” and I said, “No! I’m pro-choice”. At that time I believe most pro-choice women would have reacted similarly wanting to be very clear that pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. Since that time, if anything I have become even more solidly “pro-choice but not pro-abortion”, in part because my husband’s stated position when I met him was pro-life. After much discussion we realized we were not that far apart at all. He felt abortion was ethically wrong and so had just naturally felt that made him pro-life, but then he realized how complicated the decision was and that it wasn’t ethical to try to control women and limit their choices either. I had assumed that all pro-life men were trying to control women, and once I realized that was not the case, I was much more able to see his perspective and we could find areas of agreement in trying to reduce abortion through reducing teen pregnancy and increasing options for women so they don’t feel so trapped and desperate. At the same time I was going through this personal change, our society was changing and the strategies and rhetoric of both sides of the debate were changing as well. There has been a recent movement in the pro-life side to argue that they are supporting and protecting women. I’m sure this was at least partially in response to attitudes like mine that pro-lifers were anti-women. Unfortunately, part of this movement has been for pro-life to present lots of “evidence” and anecdotes about how damaging and awful abortion is for the woman and how so many of women who have abortions wish they hadn’t done it. Then in response to this, the pro-choice side starts to talk about how abortion doesn’t have to be traumatic and most women don’t regret their choice and it is a very short step from there to sounding pro-abortion rather than pro-choice. When that happens maybe some women actually do become pro-abortion, or at least abortion neutral. Medical technology has also contributed to making abortion more acceptable. A lot of fertility treatments involve implanting multiple embryos with the knowledge that many will not survive and some are even not used at all. I still get a visceral “that’s just wrong” reaction to this, but I can’t judge a couple willing to do this to have a biological child.
        In the end, it’s like you said in your prior comment, the real discussion is when *human* life begins. It seems so clear to me that a ball of cells is not a human being. The very clarity of that concept for me makes me a particularly bad person to try to convince someone who doesn’t see it the same way. I didn’t make a transition from one view of the start of life to the other. Here is someone who did: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/10/how-i-lost-faith-in-the-pro-life-movement.html


      • Bailey Steger

        Fascinating! Thank you. That brings a lot of clarity to the issue. I probably fall right on the border of pro-life and pro-choice, in that I think the best way to promote a pro-life ethic is through prevention, awareness, a strong adoption focus, and individual support, rather than an emphasis on legal repercussions.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Allison Caylor

      Adele, I appreciate all you’ve said to explain your perspective! You’ve contributed a lot to helping me respect and understand those who are pro-choice in a thoughtful and caring way. Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Adele

    I do understand that “My body, my choice” does not move you much. When I was becoming pro-choice the rallying cry was, “Pro-life is a lie – they don’t care if women die.” Not the kind of thing that sways people who disagree with you – way too confrontational for that, but certainly gets people worked up.



  5. Allison Caylor

    I’m intrigued by the way you put this. I’ve had to give a lot of thought to these questions, since the political convictions I hold at first glance can appear selfish and cold, even brutal, in their effect. The way I see it, there are two different aspects of the puzzle you posed that are worth mentioning. I fear this will be long, as usual… I guess that means your post is awesome.

    I honestly don’t think a government entity has the same moral obligations as an individual. I should not walk past someone bleeding on the side of the path, or give a cold shoulder or careless $20 to someone truly needy in my life. They don’t have a right to my help — but it would be sickeningly wrong not to give it, even if it costs me all I have. But a government is not a person; it’s an contract among a large group of people that (in our case) has a very specific, written purpose. That purpose is to protect the rights of those within the contract — the citizens. Saying that the US should accept anyone and everyone who would be better off here is like saying that Walgreens should hire everyone in the world who needs a job, or that a family should adopt any and all the orphans in the world: not only is it not a true moral obligation, it’s not safe, it’s not responsible, it’s not even possible. So, yes, we can vote to allow some to join us in our contract, and thank God for the opportunity we can give them. But to allow just anyone to join violates the contract, because there ARE dangerous people in the world who will take advantage of that, and so you’ve put others in danger. Where is the morality in taking your front door off its hinges? Yes, there are people who desperately need the safety and comfort of your home, but your responsibility is to your spouse and children, so if you’re endangering them, you’re actually doing wrong. I know you’ve heard all this, but I wanted to attempt to air this side for the sake of conversation. Because goodness is hard to know here.

    And the other is a similar, but more extreme scenario: to show “love” to a woman who doesn’t want to be pregnant anymore (however real her reasons/needs are), you have to approve of a completely wrong act (the killing of her baby). It’s not just driving by a man in apparent need because you’re a woman by yourself; it’s not just closing your door to the world; ethically, it’s more like robbing someone to buy yourself a coat. Yes, you needed a coat, but your need — which wasn’t even a matter of life and death — doesn’t justify your theft.

    I wonder, too, if we have become confused about what is a “right” and what is not. Honestly, people have the right not to be killed, enslaved, physically hurt, stolen from, and to meet peacefully for any reason, practice any religion, and defend themselves, but that’s pretty much it. We don’t have the RIGHT to live in whatever country we want or to have sex without having a baby. Those are great things that every person wants, but we might not get them, and I don’t think that lays an obligation on anyone else to fix it for us if it conflicts with someone else’s actual rights.

    This is super controversial stuff, I know. It is heart-rending that anyone has to suffer in this world, but it’s broken, after all. We can’t fix it by making more hurt. We can pray until our hearts bleed for those whose homes have become places of horror, and we can reach out with open hands to the needing and hurting in our own lives, and pray for Jesus to come and put an end to suffering.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bailey Steger

      I have always thought along the same lines as you when it comes to government, Allison. I still don’t think I’ll be a Democrat/liberal any time soon, but one thing that I’m beginning to realize that, particularly in America, we the people, the morally obligated people, make up the government. That doesn’t negate the argument you’re making, I don’t think, but it does nuance it a bit. Should the government be morally obligated to take in refugees fleeing horrific situations (providing it doesn’t break that first contract to protect its people) insofar as the individuals who are making up their government are morally obligated? I think that’s where my thinking is shifting: the government must follow the wishes of the people and protect the people, but if the people are paranoid of refugees without just cause, can we charge a whole nation with immorality? I think we can.


    • David

      Hi, Allison! You write: “I fear this will be long, as usual…”, but psst, let me tell you a secret: some of us *like* reading your comments! In full, even. They’re the *good* kind of long. :)


      • Allison Caylor

        David — how sweet of you! Your comment made my day! And as you see, I have Bailey’s full permission to ramble on as much as I like, so I’m not responsible for her server crashing from data overload because of my future comments. :)

        Bailey — I get what you’re saying and that’s something I’ve puzzled over. What I was trying to say, and didn’t really manage to articulate, was that when you open your country (and this applies to a home, business, whatever) to anyone and everyone always, your country will be destroyed long before you’ve helped every single person in the world, and will no longer be a safe place for either refugees or citizens. (Bad people WILL take advantage of a safe place provided for good people. Period.) So i think my duty is better done by voting for policy that allows a few carefully chosen people to join our safe place. Many will still be in dangerous, horrible situations, but that safe place will still exist for the some.


      • Bailey Steger

        Ah, I see now! I get that perspective; it’s very understandable. If there was strong proof that terrorists have infiltrated the refugees, I would support that position more, I think.


  6. Mandy PS

    I think there is a struggle all across American Christianity that is about this very issue. When does one vote based on the Bible and when does one vote based on the Constitution. I have many a friend who claims they vote solely based on the Bible–and as Christian myself, I cannot judge them for this perspective. So they vote against abortion and against gay marriage. And while abortion is a stickier issue–since we’re arguing if someone/thing is alive or not–to me gay marriage is a clear cut and dry thing that we cannot constitutionally keep people from (which the Supreme Court upheld). But then I see these exact same Christians, who have argued vehemently to vote based on the Bible NOT the Constitution suddenly turn a complete 180 when it comes to the refugee issue. Suddenly it’s all “We have to protect America” and “the gov’t is required to protect us above others” and there is no “the Bible says take care of the stranger and foreigner so I must uphold this even if the gov’t disagrees.” Suddenly they’re voting based on laws and not the Bible.

    It’s very confusing to me, since they have often critiqued me for voting based on what I believe is upheld by the laws of the land (the Constitution). I too am not sure what to do about this.

    The government is not required to let immigrants in. Heck, the Constitution does not say we have to let everyone in. But as a Christian, I believe we have a duty to help the stranger, to help the foreigner. To welcome them into our house, and even to at times risk our own safety to protect theirs.

    I don’t really have a coherent ending point here, since I’m mulling over it and struggling with it myself. Just I guess…I understand where you’re coming from. You are not struggling with this alone.


  7. Elizabeth

    Ok, I *have* to take the time to address this idea: ““The unborn have the right not only to life, but to citizenship. Refugees do not.”

    When people act like the Constitution does not apply to refugees or foreign nationals or ONLY applies to citizens, it gets me reaally worked up because it fundamentally misunderstands not only the *letter* of the Constitution, but the *heart* as well (although, granted, I understand that this is not exactly what the above comment stated). When the Constitution is referring exclusively to citizens, you can tell because it calls them citizens (mind-blowing, I know). Otherwise, it will refer to “people” or “persons” which generally refers to, ya know, people/persons in general. Plus, when taken within the context of the founding of the nation, side by side with other documents of the time, we can clearly see that one fascinating thing about the founding of the U.S. is the fact that the founders did not believe that certain rights were given or contracted by the government but rather that these rights exist *inherently* within every man, given to him by Nature and Nature’s God.

    That’s one of the most lasting religious inspired aspects of our nation, and I consider myself a conservative (though albeit moderate) precisely because I work to conserve that influence in our modern world. Not because I let fear override my Christian sense of charity toward my fellow man.

    Ok, I’ll be down off my soapbox now.


  8. Karen

    Love the discussion. Dont have much to add but i will say i dont think the EO was necessary. everyone legally entering this country already goes through a vetting process. Also, seriously os it true that there are SO many bad “dudes” in somalia that it makes banning every single one necessary. (Many somali refugees live in my neighborhood; i say the idea is ludicrous) Yes of course we need to keep our country safe, but to say we are failing at this is to be blind to reality in almost every single other country in the world. also, statistically, more domestic terrorism in the us is caused by ppl born on us soil (including one of the san bernadino shooters). And on abortion: i personally think that ethically, you can legally support the option being available while doing everything in your power to make sure it rarely happens. Focusing on the legal debate distracts from the real issue: factors that cause abortion.


    • Bailey Steger

      EXACTLY. Which raises the question, why are the banning these refugees in particular? Why is Trump so up in arms about accepting refugees from Australia? Is it really that the White House thinks refugees pose a threat, or is there an ulterior motive? I don’t get it.

      I think that’s where I’m at with abortion too — not focusing on the legal aspects but rather focusing on the causes. Does that make you pro-life or pro-choice??


      • Karen Wright

        Often the point that ban-supporters make is that the banned countries are from a “high risk” list that the Obama administration compiled. Also, Obama apparently ordered a travel ban from Iraq back in 2011. However, that was because in 2011n they stopped some Iraqi terrorists living in the US from going through with their plan which is why the travel ban got enforced. So the comparisons aren’t really equal. Nothing involving citizens from any of the banned countries has happened to motivate such a drastic action. There are a lot of “ulterior motive” ideas out there that say this is all a distracting action on the part of the Trump administration to do something more sinister. Now, I’m fully aware that worst case scenario (whatever that is…Hitler II?) could obviously happen; however, I’d rather not live like the sky is falling and take the events at face value.

        Definitely consider myself both (pro-life and pro-choice). This is because I really think being pro-life is the balanced way to be pro-choice. To simply be pro-choice WITHOUT being pro-life means preventing pregnancies isn’t a priority, you just keep giving people abortions. On the flip side, being pro-life WITHOUT being pro-choice means the same, you just keep doing all you can to keep every unwanted pregnancy continuing to term. Both extremes just treat the symptom without treating the problem.


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