Most of the issues highlighted during this year’s run-up to the US presidential election are framed in terms of separating the deserving from the undeserving. Abortion for rape victims, but not those who want to have sex. Immigration for the politically persecuted, but not those who move across borders because they need to find a job. Marriage benefits for those who have sex with the right people in the right way.
This debate misses the point in two key ways.
At the most basic level, the issues at hand are basic human rights and not dependent on who “deserves” what: we have a right to access to abortion, health care, work, and freedom and movement because we are humans, not because we deserve it.
But also as a political process, it is ineffectual to focus policy debates on whether or not specific people deserve the services and public goods they clearly need.
I was reminded of this the other day as I was boarding a plane and the flight attendant asked me about the meaning of my t-shirt which read: “Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.”
But does that mean you are for it or against it, though,” he asked. I was stumped for words.
Immigration is a reality, just like so many other issues people insist on declaring themselves “for” or “against.” Abortion, adolescent pregnancy, sex outside marriage, sex work, identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex… the list could go on.
None of these issues is fringe. One in three women in the United States will have an abortion by the age of 45. Every year, 750,000 girls between the age of 15 and 19 get pregnant in the United States. Ninety-five percent of all Americans have sex before they get married (or have sex and may never get married). While it is difficult to estimate the number of sex workers, the National Task Force on Prostitution estimates that over one million people in the United States have worked as sex workers. And a 2011 study shows that almost 9 million adults identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual,transgender, or intersex, i.e. about 4 percent of the US population. As for immigration, very few people in the United States do not trace their ancestry—even their recent ancestry—to immigration.
But more to the point, none of these issues will change through declaring them good or bad. The focus for a policy maker should be how to generate policies that most effectively guarantee the maximum level of welfare and human rights-enjoyment for everyone. And from that perspective, whether someone is “deserving” or not is irrelevant.
Abortion and adolescent pregnancy numbers depend on access to comprehensive sex education and contraception. Choices about sex work and immigration to a large extent depend on available work and whether individuals are able to provide for themselves and their families in any other way. And those who believe they can change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity just by saying they “don’t believe in homosexuality” are more delusional than most. Even those who make a career out of not believing in homosexuality can’t change their own (completely legitimate) sexual orientation.
There is, of course, an enormous difference between the issues high-lighted here: some are medical procedures, some life experiences, some innate traits. However that may be public policy on health, sexuality, immigration, and employment should not be designed to punish us for being who we are or for doing what we feel we need to do, but rather make sure everyone is equally empowered to make the best choices for themselves.