Migrants and the Unborn: A Culture of Life Versus a Culture of Deterrence

Among the many icons in our home, we have, perhaps a little unusually, an icon of the Holy Innocents, on whose feast day my husband and I were married. It is a striking and even disturbing icon. Whereas most icons are suffused with the tranquil beauty of divine peace, the icon of the Holy Innocents is violently in motion. Everywhere, bodies are grotesquely twisted: infants torn from the arms of mothers and run through by swords; the mothers themselves, writhing in agonies of grief and futilely attempting to protect their children; soldiers contorted in unspeakable acts of violence.

The feast of the Holy Innocents has long been a central memorial for the pro-life movement, a reminder that the Divine Word took every stage of our human weakness upon himself, his heartbeat springing up in the womb of a young mother, who gave birth to him as a helpless infant in a barn among the animals. In taking our flesh from the moment of his conception, he re-affirms the dignity of each human life, a sign and contradiction in a world accustomed to degrading women and discarding children. No surprise, then, that the first martyrs bearing him witness are the little ones who fall victim to Herod’s power. And so, the icon confronts us with the question: How will we protect these little ones?

But the icon of the Holy Innocents also reveals an essential part of the story that, distracted by the graphic slaughter, we often forget to commemorate. Off to the right, a little group is being hunted down by a stray soldier, sword extended. A mother disappears into a cave—signifying Divine protection—looking back as she clutches her baby, her body protectively interposed between the sword and the child. The escape is a narrow one; the soldier is approaching the mouth of the cave but does not see them. In some versions of the icon, the same figures subsequently reappear, exiting the frame under the guidance of an angel or St. Joseph.

The Holy Family is in flight.

The icon denies us the pleasingly sanitized imagery common in classical Western art, in which the Flight to Egypt appears as a mere journey—as in the peaceful and even pastoral depictions of Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Carpaccio. I remember, as a child, explaining the interpretive key to my little brother: when Mary is riding a donkey without a baby, you know she’s on the way to Bethlehem; If she’s holding a baby, you know they’re on the way to Egypt. Sometimes Mary sits under a palm tree while Jesus eats some fruit. Nothing in these images suggests the shock of uprooting, the loss, the fear, the vulnerability, the midnight escape into the unknown.

In the icon of the Holy Innocents, in contrast, as in the Scripture narrative itself, the slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight to Egypt are two dimensions of the same event: the violence unleashed upon the defenseless by a power-mad world, and the consequent displacement of the human being—the displacement of God made flesh—driven out beyond the framing boundaries of home, upon the mercies of strangers in a foreign land. There was no room for him in the inn, and now once again the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, as his parents gather what belongings they can and flee into the night.

And thus as we follow them into the darkness of the cave, or out to the edge of the unknown where the frame ends, the icon of the Holy Innocents confronts us with the same question again, this time seen from the other side: how will we receive the ones who escape, the ones who survive?

If the feast of the Holy Innocents is the pro-life memorial par excellence, then it is also for the very same reason the pro-migrant memorial par excellence. The icon will not allow us to have one without the other. For they are two inseparable manifestations of the one mystery that the icon invites us to encounter: Christ, revealed as the one rejected by those who ought to have welcomed him as a gift, but who have perceived him instead as a personal and political threat. He is revealed, both directly as the child in flight in his mother’s arms, and indirectly in the images of the children slain in his stead. Whether he comes to us as the unplanned child or the asylum seeker wading in the river, his coming is fundamentally the same: as a stranger unexpected, unwanted, intrusive in his dependence. His is the defenseless body threatened by the knife. He is the one who leaves home, fleeing violence, persecution, intolerable poverty.

A culture of life is a culture that welcomes the stranger in flight. Pro-life is pro-migrant.[1]

This is a great mystery, and there are many angles to explore in illuminating why it belongs to a culture of life to welcome the stranger. But my aim at present is quite restricted: to show that the rhetoric that is widespread in every corner of our society—which views all migration fundamentally through the lens of territorial sovereignty, and views solutions exclusively through the lens of ever-harsher deterrence—is fundamentally incompatible with a pro-life understanding of the human person.

This anti-migrant rhetoric, I want to show, speaks the language of a culture of death—the very same language, drawing on the very same fundamental philosophy, that has long been used to dehumanize and justify the killing of the unborn.


In order to see this point, let us go back to 1971, to one of the most famous philosophical articles ever written, Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion.” Thomson develops a simple, straightforward argument that was found widely compelling and even informs the Supreme Court’s majority decision in Roe v. Wade.

Most people, Thomson says, believe that the morality of abortion hinges on whether or not the fetus is a person having a right to life. This, she says, is a mistake. Even if we all could agree that the fetus is a person with a right to life, that does not imply that the woman or anyone else has any corresponding obligation to carry the fetus to term, to nurture it, and to promote its life. “Having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body—even if one needs it for life itself.”

To drive the point home, Thomson uses a series of vivid and revealing analogies. The most famous of these is the “violinist analogy,” meant to parallel a high-risk (i.e., months-in-bed) pregnancy resulting from rape:

But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back-to-back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own.

The violinist should recover in nine months, during which time you will need to stay in bed in the hospital. If you disconnect yourself, he will die. Thomson asks:

Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. But now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous.

To avoid this outrageous conclusion, Thomson explains, we must reject the idea that a person can make a moral claim to my help—no matter how easy it is for me to help, and no matter what may happen to the person as a result of my failure to assist—unless I first voluntarily consent to take on the obligation.

In other words, I am not morally required to assist someone’s survival just because I happen to be in the right place at the right time. Thomson acknowledges that it might be unkind (or “indecent” or “callous”) if I refuse assistance when it would be easy for me to assist—but it would not unjust for me to refuse: “If you do allow him to use [your kidneys], it is a kindness on your part, and not something you owe him.”

Although the violinist analogy is Thomson’s most famous one from this article, I think a later analogy in the same article is actually more revealing. Recognizing that the violinist case is analogous only to pregnancy by rape (since you have been hooked up by force), Thomson develops her “people-seeds” analogy to show that someone who has taken proper precautions to guard against pregnancy is not morally required to sustain the life of a person who gets past the barriers:

Suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not—despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective.

What is particularly striking about the people-seeds analogy is that it reframes the moral problem in terms of ejecting a trespasser. Although Thomson is careful to set up the analogy to specify that the trespassing people-seeds are innocent (modifying an earlier analogy in which a burglar gets in through an open window), the framing is fundamentally one of property violation.

In fact, earlier in the piece, Thomson explicitly states: “The mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house which has, by an unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house.” The property language is meant to drive home the point that the unborn child only has a right to stay, drawing on the mother’s body for nourishment, if the mother accords him that right—in the same way that you only have the right to sit at my table eating my dinner if I have invited you there.

This reframing is crucial to the argument. The act of denying someone what they need to survive has been reduced to the much more palatable act of ejecting a trespasser. A perverse application of the principle of double effect is in the background here: whatever the trespasser suffers in consequence can be reduced to an unintended consequence of the “ejection. The child is not being killed, but merely ejected from the “house” in which it has been an unwanted squatter—well within the rights of the owner. That the child subsequently dies: well, that is tragic, but nobody’s business.

In class, I like to modify this analogy: suppose I answer the doorbell at night to find a baby in a basket on my porch, just as a blizzard is sweeping in? Interestingly, none of my students have ever assured me that I do nothing unjust by simply closing the door and going back to watching TV.


What kind of moral vision does Thomson offer us? Setting aside the technicalities, the picture is a stark one: No matter how vulnerable or dependent a human person may be, no matter how much this person’s survival depends on my aid—whether momentarily or for some extended period—I have no moral obligation to them unless I voluntarily make a commitment to help.[2] As a result, I cannot be judged by a third party as having failed an obligation in refusing my assistance. The most that someone can say is that I have been “unkind” or “indecent.”

The moral principle here can be called “No Obligation without Prior Commitment,” and it is buttressed by a double depersonalizing of the one in need. Although Thomson agrees, for the sake of argument, to consider the fetus as a person with a right to life, all her analogies depict the very presence of the unborn child in the mother’s womb as inherently aggressive and invasive. Thomson’s other analogies involve, for example, taking away a child’s chocolate box, or someone else’s coat. Simply by existing in this place unwanted by its “owner,” the unborn child has taken what does not belong to her, violating a property law. She does so unwittingly and innocently—but in this moral universe, that is no excuse. Through this subtle shifting of lenses, the vulnerability and need of the unborn child vanishes from sight, overwritten by the imagery of the perpetrator; the burglar, the trespasser, the uninvited guest. That is the first kind of depersonalization.

The second kind of depersonalization comes with the metaphor of “people-seeds.” For the argument, Thomson grants these tiny entities a right to life, but the “seeds” imagery makes that right to life feel entirely abstract, and so morally meaningless. We are creatures of imagination, and when we imagine persons as “seeds” that are “drifting about” en masse in the air, we lose sight of their moral status. Dandelion fluff makes no moral claim on me.

If people are “seeds,” it does not feel all that morally shocking to erect barriers to prevent their “drifting in” to a place where they can grow. So why not uproot the ones that do get through? After all, this is my house, and the seeds have no right to be here unless I say so.


Living in accord with the principle of “No Obligation without Prior Commitment” is the essence of the culture of death. Other human beings can make no moral claim on me unless I voluntarily grant them the status of being able to do so. Their needs carry no moral weight when counted against my sovereignty over this space that is mine.

As inherently social and interdependent beings, this is an unnatural attitude for us to take towards other human beings. We can only manage to sustain this attitude by engaging in the kinds of depersonalizing described above.

That is why the pro-life movement’s greatest successes have always depended on re-personalizing the unborn, for example, through ultrasound images, the testimony of adults who narrowly escaped abortion or were the victim of botched abortions, and even “tiny feet pins” or facts about human development during gestation that enable the listener to identify with the unborn.

But what would be the equivalent of ultrasound images? How can we re-humanize those under a different kind of threat: migrants fleeing violence, persecution, natural disasters, and intolerable poverty? They are already fully formed human beings, so no photograph could shock the viewer into recognizing their humanity. It is all too easy to live in the comfortable pretense of believing that they are persons—just as Thomson pretends for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person—while rejecting any moral claims they make on us, and barring them access to, or ejecting them from, the environment they need to survive.[3]

How do we justify this behavior to ourselves? Exactly as Thomson’s analogies teach us to do.

For instance, in widespread anti-migrant rhetoric, the language of property violation (“secure borders” and “territorial sovereignty”) is the central lens through which the problem is viewed, obscuring any humanitarian dimension of the problem. The framing is entirely one of “territorial integrity,” “national sovereignty,” and “border security.” The language of “invasion” is everywhere.

Through the first type of depersonalizing, these shifts of language transform the human person, seeking refuge under threat, into something itself threatening. The person dissolves into the image of the trespasser, even the aggressor: the “illegal,” the “gotaway.”

Anti-migrant rhetoric is also buttressed by the second kind of depersonalizing, which reduces the person further to a lifeless speck, disappearing into a nameless sub-human swarm, like the “people-seeds” that drift in the air “like pollen,” out there in the “beyond” that is outside the boundaries of human dwelling. How often do we hear the language of “flooding” or “pouring” in these contexts? If people are drops of water “pouring” in, how could there be any moral significance in damming the flood? If migration is “infestation,” how could anyone object to spraying the insects and blocking up their entry points?

With this depersonalizing in place, we don’t have to think any more about what kind of moral obligations we may have to a human being whose life is at risk. The only risk left to consider is a risk to something like property ownership: that of “undermin[ing] the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders.”

Territorial sovereignty therefore becomes the only factor with any real moral weight in determining “what to do about migration.” Of course, we might feel obliged to express some compassion for the plight of the person in need, but always without allowing that plight to influence how we analyze what should be done. The compassion serves more to humanize the speaker than the victim—a routine acknowledgment on the way to reaffirming the real moral problem, that of protecting territorial autonomy.

Perhaps the trespassing is understandable, we say, but the only morally defining fact of the matter is our autonomy over our property. The unborn child or involuntary migrant may be innocently doing what persons most fundamentally do—attempting to go on surviving—but the only fact that we consider relevant, in evaluating their moral claims on us, is whether someone has consented to their existing in this “space” they need to survive.

Thus, Congressman Laturner, writing an op-ed that echoes sentiments repeated by dozens of politicians:

We will not have a country if we do not have strong borders. I care about the individuals who are so desperate to escape their situation that they will risk everything to come to the United States—but I care about them too much to lie to them. We are a nation of laws; we cannot choose to selectively ignore our laws, or we will fundamentally erode our system of government.

And similarly Thomson writes that in response to being forced to house unwanted guests in their bodies, “women have said again and again ‘This body is my body!’ and they have reason to feel angry, reason to feel that it has been like shouting into the wind.”

And all of this is quite reasonable if we accept the principle of “No Obligation without Prior Commitment.” In the involuntary migration case, the law is supposed to function like the mother’s agreement to bear the child in Thomson’s argument. By granting legal status, the law deems a migrant “wanted,” thereby granting them the ability to make a moral claim to refuge. But this gets things exactly backward. The moral claim to refuge is founded rather in the need and vulnerability of the person, not the arbitrary decision of the other party to grant assistance.

A law does not grant the ability to make a moral claim. Rather, laws must themselves be judged in light of whether they appropriately respond to the moral claim that arises inalienably from the person in need.


I want to emphasize that I am not making an argument against the existence of immigration laws and the regulation of borders as such. Similarly, the pro-lifer need not (indeed, should not!) respond to Thomson by rejecting the person’s right to bodily integrity, or by campaigning against laws that prohibit groping or rape.

My point is rather twofold. First, humanitarian questions involving the just moral treatment of human persons cannot be settled solely, or even primarily, by appealing to territorial rights. Second, laws cannot substitute for moral reasoning.

This second point is one that the pro-life community is already excellently situated to understand at a deep level. The fact that some action is legal does not make it morally right. The fact that another action is legally prohibited does not make it morally wrong. To think so is to get the order of operations backward. Instead, as Thomas Aquinas notes, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. reemphasizes, a civil law depends wholly on the natural moral law for any binding force it may have.

For the same reason, I cannot magically escape from the basic human requirement to evaluate my actions morally, by claiming that I was merely executing a law. We are not a nation of laws if those laws are unjust, or if they are executed unjustly.

In short, all the “rule of law” and “invader” rhetoric around migration distracts us from asking the fundamental questions without which the whole rest of the debate is pointless: What are our moral obligations to those seeking refuge? And in light of those obligations, is this or that specific asylum policy, or enforcement practice, actually just? Indeed, the rhetoric makes the questions impossible. We cannot expect just laws to emerge from a depersonalizing discourse that makes persons seeking refuge into invaders and insects, any more than we can expect pro-life legislation to emerge from a discourse that makes unborn children into products of conception or parasites.

What arrives at our border are not people-seeds, but individual persons seeking refuge. And each one looks at us with the face of Christ in the icon of the Holy Innocents.


Before concluding, let us consider a likely objection. This whole exercise falls apart, one might object, because Thomson’s own analogies do not capture what is morally wrong with abortion, in three ways:

(1) Many abortions are not acts of “disconnecting” or “evicting” (with death as the regrettable side-effect) but require that the fetus be first cut up or poisoned, in order then to disconnect it.

(2) The “owner of the womb” is not any random bystander, but specifically the mother of the womb’s occupant, and her moral obligations stem from this relationship.

(3) When women actively and voluntarily engage in intercourse, this arguably amounts to a tacit consent to be occupied by any resulting children (i.e., a burglar is not a burglar if you have invited him in).

Thus, the objection might conclude, even if anti-migrant rhetoric and Thomson’s analogies in defense of abortion draw water from the same moral well, a pro-lifer can still drink consistently from that well, since Thomson’s analogies do not really succeed in capturing what makes abortion wrong.

This is a very useful objection, since the answer to it will make crystal clear why a pro-life ethic cannot maintain its integrity while dismissing the moral claims of a person who is driven to seek refuge in another country (though I can only develop the answer very briefly here).

Consider: What should we say about the following cases?

(1) Over 50% of abortions in the US use the “abortion pill,” RU486, which is FDA-approved for up to 10 weeks of pregnancy. The abortion pill functions as follows:

The mifepristone causes the lining of your uterus to shed—so your pregnancy can no longer continue because the egg will have nothing to stay attached to. Then, the misoprostol will cause uterine contractions. This allows your uterus to be emptied.

If taking the pill does not directly attack the new life, but merely makes the womb environment hostile to it, should we therefore define this type of act as essentially neutral or permissible (so that the morality of taking the abortion pill would then depend on additional factors, such as the mother’s intention to kill the child versus merely to vacate her uterus)?

(2) A surrogate carries an unborn child who is not genetically related to her at all, on behalf of an infertile couple. If she suddenly changes her mind, does the lack of genetic relationship make it morally permissible for her to “evict” the developing child?

(3) A woman becomes pregnant after having been raped. Does her lack of consent to intercourse make an abortion morally permissible?

Indeed, we can combine the three cases into one: on behalf of an infertile couple, a doctor tricks a healthy young woman, Aliyah, into a surgery in which he implants an embryo, thus forcing her into surrogacy. Upon realizing what has happened, Aliyah takes the abortion pill, stating that she has no desire to kill the child, but merely intends to “evict” this unwanted resident of her womb. Is her action morally permissible?

In the face of real cases with some of the same moral features, many begin to jump off the pro-life wagon in favor of various exceptions. Only a wholeheartedly pro-life ethic can continue to recognize the fundamental dignity of the person under such heat. What this fully pro-life vision of human dignity recognizes is the beautiful and terrifying fact that another human being’s moral claim to assistance cannot be undone by the circumstances of the case. Taking the abortion pill, even under such circumstances, is wrong.

But why exactly is it wrong? Clearly, the wrongness cannot consist either in (1) a direct attack on the body of the unborn child; or in (2) the violation of the responsibilities inherent in biological maternity; or in (3) the failure to live up to a prior implicit commitment.[4]

Rather, a fully pro-life ethic can recognize the wrongness of such an action only by recognizing an essential wrongness in turning away from a person in a radical state of dependence—in refusing to the other person the nurturing environment needed to survive. In other words, a fully pro-life ethic rejects the “No Obligation without Prior Commitment” principle, recognizing that even when we are not directly killing, we are not off the moral hook.

What a culture of life recognizes is that the moral claim to protection, and the corresponding obligation to protect, are grounded, not in genetics, nor in consent, but in the personhood of Aliyah and the personhood of the tiny person growing in her, which have become intertwined in a reciprocal relationship of support and dependence. That is to say, whether either of them likes it or not, that tiny person depends on Aliyah for survival, and it is that dependence, chosen or not, that makes Aliyah morally obliged to provide what assistance she can.

It is those last few words that are the terrifying and confusing ones—what assistance she can. But it is precisely here that we reach the glowing core of the culture of life.

A culture of life recognizes the essential wrongfulness of deliberately killing any innocent person, no matter how small or disabled or inconvenient. But this wrongfulness arises from something deeper and more disorientingly open-ended: the essential obligation to embrace the good of the other. Killing another human being is wrong, according to Thomas Aquinas, most fundamentally because the human being has “a nature we ought to love.”

It is because such killing is always and essentially a refusal to embrace the good of the other that it is always and essentially wrong in the first place.

It is the refusal to love—the refusal to welcome—that sets the stage for the killing.


In this light, we can see that a true culture of life cannot accept any of the common strategies for evading our responsibilities to involuntary migrants. A culture of deterrence cannot be a culture of life.

Arriving on our doorstep, in vulnerability and dependence, involuntary migrants occupy a parallel moral position to the unborn child that is neither Aliyah’s nor chosen by her. They, too, are the children that, to date, have escaped Herod’s wrath—but still depend on someone for their continued protection.[5]

We can respond, as with the abortion pill, by “making the environment hostile”: by turning back, or implementing harsh deterrence measures. In the past few years in the US, such measures have ranged from the absurdly harassing, such as stoking unnecessary processing delays, to the dehumanizing, such as forcing a choice between indigence and working before receiving permission,[6] to the abusive, as in the conditions endured in certain detention centers, to the downright life-threatening, such as requiring vulnerable persons to wait for their court dates while sleeping in the dangerous streets and shelters of Mexican border towns, exposing them to high rates of kidnapping, rape, extortion, and murder.

Measures of deterrence make sense for someone who endorses the “No Obligation without Prior Commitment” principle, since if we have no moral responsibilities to involuntary migrants, then we are fully justified in trying to eliminate the nuisance.

But if the vulnerable person can make a moral claim on us to provide what assistance we can, then we have to ask ourselves what effect these measures have on those to whom we owe protection.

Thus, in a culture of life, the starting point can never be deterrence. We must begin, rather, with a good faith effort to address the moral claim. Our opening question must always be: To whom do we owe protection? How do we set up humane processes that will secure protection for those to whom it is owed? For example: How to adjudicate claims in a humane time-frame—not so quickly as to prevent the applicant from assembling a solid legal case, but quickly enough to avoid plunging hundreds of thousands of people into an awful limbo of yearslong waiting?

In a culture of life, the fundamental and immovable goal toward which all policy regarding involuntary migration must aim, is to provide what assistance we can. Such a policy need not be an “open borders” policy in the sense of a total lack of regulation. A culture of life is perfectly consistent with regulation and orderly entry. But it insists that regulations must be formulated in light of the right moral goals, and must therefore provide reliable and usable legal means for identifying and protecting as many of those at risk as we can.

In such moral cases there is no precise equation to answer the question of how much we can, and therefore should, do, e.g., exactly how many persons in flight we can and therefore should admit. It is true that the ability to assist and the need for assistance can be sadly mismatched. Yet it is also true that we humans also have a deep-rooted tendency to underestimate our capacity to assist. Indeed, what new parent has not felt unequal to the task? The impossibility of assisting “everyone” often serves to self-justify our failure to do what we can. In the realm of policy, too, existing regulations can themselves perversely and artificially increase the burden of assisting, as in the deterrence measures mentioned above. Thus, in a culture of life, which takes seriously the moral claims of the vulnerable, we must continually examine our consciences on this point.

Moreover, in a culture of life, we must reject some of the most familiar reasons for disclaiming our responsibilities to involuntary migrants, corresponding to the cases above. We cannot, for instance, accept the rationale that we are merely turning migrants away, and that while what happens to them subsequently may be heartbreaking—they may live in constant fear; families may be separated; dissidents may be re-imprisoned—we bear no responsibility for any such consequences (tacitly the approach taken in the Laturner piece quoted above). Nor can we accept the rationale that their moral claims on us arise only from our consenting to their presence, so as to make them “ours.”

Nor, in a culture of life, can we accept the common utilitarian-type arguments, in which considerations of social impact override the dignity of the person. We can debate the math according to which restrictions on abortion “cost local economies $105 billion dollars” in lost productivity per year, and children who are aborted “would have been 70% more likely to live in a single parent family, 40% more likely to live in poverty, 50% more likely to receive welfare, and 35% more likely to die as an infant”—or the much more disingenuous and fear-mongering math according to which “[the migration crisis] now costs California $21.76 billion and Texas $8.88 billion annually in education, health care, law enforcement and criminal justice system costs, welfare expenditures, and more,” and migrants are vaguely accused of fostering “a sizable surge in violent crime.”

Whatever the math may be, it does not erase the truth that the vulnerable have a claim to our protection—a right, even, to a space to survive. Even if it were true that unwanted babies and involuntary migrants will later commit violent crimes at higher rates, even if it were true that their effects on the economy are forever a net negative, we are not off the hook for answering the fundamental question: What do we owe to their personhood, to this nature we ought to love? Are the actions we take to avoid these consequences compatible with their personhood?


And so we return to the icon of the Holy Innocents: Herod on the left, Christ escaping on the right, the Holy Innocents caught in the slaughter in the middle.

It is Herod’s refusal of the newborn Christ that makes him determined to kill him. That refusal gives birth to the carnage. That refusal is the reason that the infants have to die.

Surely, we would not have participated in the slaughter. But how will we receive Christ when, escaping, he arrives on our doorstep? How can we learn to see him as the icon manifests him to us: as One Who comes to us clothed in need?

For here is a great mystery: his need is our own need, which he has taken upon himself in order to rescue us.[7]

[1] I have used the term “migrant” rather than “immigrant” because this term, as used today, more closely reflects the specific cases I am concerned with here, as epitomized by the Holy Family themselves: namely, persons who are on the move due to some urgent need or threat that makes life in their home country intolerable. To make this point clear, I will occasionally use the term “involuntary migration,” in the Aristotelian sense according to which rational actions undertaken under pressure to avoid some great evil, like throwing goods overboard in a storm to lighten the ship, count as involuntary.

Cases of involuntary migration are only partly captured by the criteria for asylum under international law, which limits eligibility to those persecuted due to race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. But life at home may just as well become intolerable from other causes for which asylum law does not provide, including natural disasters, widespread gang violence or societal collapse, and severe poverty. A separate discussion could be had in its own right about our moral responsibilities of hospitality to strangers more generally (including, e.g., tourists or foreign exchange students), as well as our moral responsibilities to would-be immigrants who are quite able to make a tolerable life for themselves at home, but who voluntarily relocate for improved economic or social prospects. But my concern here is only with cases of migration under pressure of survival.

To put it another way: I find that the distinction between “persecution-based” vs. “economic” migration does not capture the morally relevant distinctions, and that references to “immigrants seeking a better life” are too vague to be morally helpful, as the phrase cannot distinguish among a Canadian doctor seeking better pay at an American hospital, and a family that goes to bed hungry most nights and whose children have no hope of ever attending school, and a journalist forced to leave his house in the cover of darkness in fear of military reprisals. Rather, the morally relevant distinction is between what could be called involuntary (extrinsically constrained) vs. voluntary (extrinsically unconstrained) migration.

[2] Someone might object that Thomson’s view is not quite so stark as this, since she does grant the following: “We surely must all grant that there may be cases in which it would be morally indecent to detach a person from your body at the cost of his life. Suppose . . . all you need do to save his life is to spend one hour in that bed with him . . . [without affecting] your health in the slightest. . . . Admittedly you did not give anyone permission to plug him into you. Nevertheless it seems to me plain you ought to allow him to use your kidneys for that hour—it would be indecent to refuse.” Does the language of “ought” and “morally indecent” here indicate that you do have a moral obligation to help when it is easy? One might think so; many philosophers do treat “ought to do X” as equivalent to “having an obligation to do X.” Nonetheless, Thomson’s “ought” appears to have only a very thin moral sense here.

The basic claim of her article is that the vulnerable person’s right to life makes no moral claim on, and does not call forth any corresponding “owing” from, someone positioned to assist, which she seems to take as necessary for being “morally required” to assist. Moreover, although refusing to help in easy cases is “morally indecent” or “selfish,” she says, it is not “unjust”—and at no point does she call it “wrong.” In short, she gives the reader no reason to interpret “ought to allow him to use your kidneys” as a moral requirement—i.e., as an obligation in the common, non-technical way of understanding the term, which is the sense in which I use it here. Furthermore, even if Thomson intends “ought” here to indicate an obligation in the strong sense of a moral requirement, that obligation is clearly not interpersonal (as she explicitly denies, when stating that rights do not automatically call forth “owing” and that refusing to assist, even in the easy case, is “not unjust”). For Thomson, I am not violating an obligation to the violinist by indecently refusing to assist for one hour, since he cannot make a moral claim on me to do so. So, if “ought to assist” implies “obligation to assist,” this obligation, for Thomson, cannot be grounded in the needy person herself (otherwise it would be a matter of justice to satisfy the need). Then, in what is the purported obligation grounded instead? Perhaps in the requirements for being a certain kind of person (for example, if I want to be a kind person, then I ought to help). But this, as many philosophers have noted, is quite a thin and not-obviously-moral sense of “ought” (compare: “If I want to stay dry, I ought to wear boots”).

[3] I owe this insight to John O’Callaghan, “Are There Failed Persons? Am I One of Them?

[4] Keeping in mind that in our example, the death of the child as the result of rendering the womb-environment hostile is not intended, but merely foreseen.

[5] The parallel is of course strongest for those escaping threats to their life. But just as someone might find herself in a situation in which a child unexpectedly depends on her help to escape abuse, exploitation, or deprivation, even if not life-threatening, so too there are parallels in involuntary migration that similarly call forth a moral obligation to respond—an obligation that is arguably stronger in proportion to the severity of the threat.

[6] “Asylum seekers who are concerned about homelessness during the pendency of their employment authorization waiting period should become familiar with the homelessness resources provided by the state where they intend to reside” (Department of Homeland Security rule published 6/20/2020).

[7] I am grateful to Troy Kassien for assistance with research for this piece, and to my colleagues Dan and Brian for their helpful comments.

Featured Image: US-Mexico Border fence by the Pacific Ocean taken by Tony Webster; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0


Therese Scarpelli Cory

Therese Scarpelli Cory is the John and Jean Oesterle Associate Professor of Thomistic Studies in the Philosophy Department at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge.

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