Pro-lifers Must Support Those with Disabilities

We are all called to recognize the dignity and worth of every single person.  Whether it is as members of a community of faith or simply as members of the societies in which we live, we are called to respect all human life.  This requires a particular concern for the most vulnerable, those most exposed to potential indifference and exploitation. Hubert Humphrey spoke of the moral test of government, defining it as “how that government treats those in the dawn of life, children, those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those in the shadows of the life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Humphrey was describing a mindset that parallels a consistent life or “whole life” ethic, one that advocates for the protection of all of society’s most vulnerable members.

If we are to reflect on one particular aspect of this moral test of government, the respect for, and protection of, the disabled, we must conclude thus far as a society we have fallen short.  And for many pro-lifers, there has been a fundamental failure to work for the dignity and human flourishing of those with disabilities.  This must end.  We can only truly defend life if we defend all of the most vulnerable.

The passage of legislation in the 1970s, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited institutions that discriminated against disabled individuals from receiving federal funding, and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which established basic rights for children with disabilities in their educational environments, were among the first steps taken to ensure the protection of disabled Americans.  The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (with amendments passed in 2008), which prohibits the discrimination of the disabled in employment, education, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications, while crucial and certainly laudable, has not been enough.  Greater advocacy on the behalf of the disabled, especially the severely disabled, is still desperately needed.

In the abstract, of course we view those who are disabled as deserving of assistance and equally worthy of living quality lives.  However, we have been unable to back up those sentiments with real concrete action, particularly when it involves real economic costs.  We have not devoted the necessary time, energy and resources to advocate for and implement policies which provide care for the disabled and allow those living with intellectual and physical disabilities to realize their potential and enjoy a quality of life that is compatible with their inherent human dignity and worth.

Discrimination against those with disabilities often begins in the womb.  New technology in the medical field has helped to save countless young lives, but it has also allowed for increased discrimination against the disabled through the termination of their young lives.  But the injustice extends beyond abortion.

We have not done enough to implement policies that support the disabled and their caretakers, legislation that would recognize their human dignity and enhance their quality of life.  This is an indication that as a society, while we might voice our belief in helping those who need assistance, in reality, we view them as lesser; we treat them as though they are less deserving of opportunity, less deserving of an adequate quality of life.  If we are not willing to make that admission, we will not make the changes that are necessary.  We must recognize that if we are advocates for life–all life–care for the disabled is our responsibility and must be a part of our mission.

For those of us who are pro-life, it is crucial that we incorporate the needs of  intellectually and physically disabled people into our legislative platform and work to ensure that our disabled brothers and sisters have access to education and employment opportunities, to health care that meets their unique needs and to other services that will ensure their quality of life and allow them to reach their full potential as persons.

True respect for life is the protection of that life from the moment of conception until natural death and the respect for human dignity at every stage of life in between.  Refusing to see the intellectually and physically disabled as the “other” and insisting in our advocacy that they be afforded the same quality of life that the rest of us enjoy is the only way to maintain a consistent life ethic and to deserve the “pro-life” label.

Health Care

Am I My Sister’s Keeper?

Am I my sister’s keeper? Sister Simone Campbell asked that question recently at the Democratic National Convention. Personally, as much as I tend to focus on the broad outlines of policies and laws or philosophize about the true nature of the common good, sometimes it comes down to pretty literal questions.

Over the past few years, as I have watched the Affordable Care Act wind its way through passage, court challenges, and the long process of implementation, my focus has been directly on my older sister, who has an extremely severe pre-existing medical condition that at times disables her and at other times gives her the ability to take care of—with unmatched compassion—her patients at the hospital where she serves as a nurse.

Health Care

The issues regarding the American health care system and the various attempts to reform it have been a source of great political and social division in the United States.

As I increasingly develop in my faith, I am drawn to the extreme compassion that Jesus shows to people who have disabilities. Rather than rejecting them, making them outcasts from society, or assuming some sin of their own or their family has caused their disability, he embraces their human dignity and worth. For this open and embracing attitude, he is subjected to hostile criticism and attack.

His compassion helps me understand my life. When I was in kindergarten, my sister was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. I grew up knowing that my sister learned differently than I did—that while reading came naturally to me, getting through each page was a struggle for her, and that she had many skills that I didn’t have, which enabled her to help me. By the beginning of high school, she had found countless pathways around this limitation and was at the top of her class, along with being the best athlete and a great leader.

But this time also marked the onset of her medical illness. Perhaps because of her earlier experience with dyslexia, she accepted her diagnosis, choosing to fight against it in all the ways she knew how. She accepted that it was a disease that she would have for the rest of her life, sought treatment however she could, and continued to strive to be part of our family and serve our world.

My mother lost her teaching career because at that time, before the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, no school would give her the time she needed to take care of her daughter when she needed it most. She went from being a teacher in the local schools to working for minimum wage at a bakery, selling blueberry muffins to her former colleagues, because this job allowed her to take care of her child.

At times when I have been at a loss about how to help and care for my sister, when one more medication or treatment fails, the images of Jesus reaching out to those who are sick and disabled provide great solace for me. My sister’s illness will always be a painful reality in her life and in the life of my family. However, I have a very clear sense of God’s closeness to us, especially during these struggles:

Mark 5: 25-29. There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years. She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction.

Today, no doubt influenced by my family’s experiences, I am very happy to be a civil rights lawyer where every day I am able to work with families to guide them through the statutory and regulatory complications of our laws so that they can live with greater dignity.

On June 28, as I logged onto SCOTUSblog to find out whether the Affordable Care Act had been upheld, as I anxiously waited for the latest update, I thought about my sister and how our lives would be changed if Obamacare were upheld.  It would mean that, at those times when she finds herself too sick to work, she will not have to worry about affording the medications that keep her alive.  It would mean that she will never have to leave us and move to Canada (we’re dual citizens) just so that she can get the treatment she needs.  It would mean that she will be in a much better position to continue healing the poorest of the poor.

And when the news came through that it was upheld, I felt both joy and relief.  I experienced the dissipation of worry that had lurked for 20 years. The weight of knowing that my sister could lose access to life-saving medication at any time (try over $1000 a month) had been lifted.

Of course the Affordable Care Act is not perfect and serious disagreements exist over how it should be implemented.  But this act is a huge step forward that impacts millions upon millions of our sisters and brothers, both figuratively and literally, who have preexisting conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, and mental illnesses, as well as those who have been the victims of domestic violence.  When Jesus healed people of the common preexisting conditions of his time, he was healing those whom society had ostracized and ignored.  In drawing inspiration from Jesus, our society can and must do better.

It is clear why the Catholic Church views health care as an inalienable right.  It is a recognition of the dignity of human beings, who live together in families and communities. Our society has a long way to go in this work, but the Affordable Care Act is a great start.