The Corner


Now Bioethicists Interpose Themselves into the Border Crisis

Migrants from Honduras climb a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, December 12, 2018. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Mainstream bioethics is often really just leftwing politics, masking as a field of objective expertise that seeks to influence society far beyond medical ethics and health care public policy. As an example, the other day I pointed out that leaders of the movement recently presumed to make the global-warming controversy a bioethics issue — which it isn’t.

Bioethicists are fond of taking positions about hot-potato controversies of the day, which is why we shouldn’t be surprised that 800 practitioners signed a letter sent to lawyers for illegal and asylum-seeking immigrants that castigates the government’s treatment of children being cared for in border-detention facilities. This issue is more relevant to biomedical ethics than global warming, to be sure. But the signatories base their self-described expert” opinions on not necessarily reliable leftwing advocates’ hearsay reports and news stories, you know, the kinds of things AOC says. From the June 25 letter:

According to numerous reports from on-site visits and interviews, children and others under the care of the U.S. government are being held in unsanitary conditions, without access to clean water or adequate nutrition, kept in frigid temperatures without the basic environmental conditions to allow them to sleep, and denied access to even the simplest emergency medical care. There have been outbreaks of influenza and lice; in the absence of basic sanitation, other public health threats will surely follow.

As ethicists, we can say with absolute certainty that this is not a hard case. We should not have to convince the U.S. government of its obvious ethical obligations to protect vulnerable children in its custody or of its obvious failure to satisfy those obligations to date. And yet, it appears that argument is needed.

If one need not be an expert to understand the problem, who needs your opinion?

That point aside, expert opinion usually requires actual, preferably direct, knowledge of the matter opined about. These signers don’t know that the charges they make are true. Indeed, leaders of the Border Patrol have repeatedly and adamantly denied many of these allegations — as they have begged for more resources to care for people swamping the facilities in what is clearly a chaotic situation.

No one would disagree with this point:

No matter where they came from, these are children, the most vulnerable members of any society. As a matter of common decency, they deserve care, protection, and acknowledgment of their humanity. As a matter of medical ethics, they deserve to be housed in conditions that will preserve their health and the health of others, and they deserve appropriate medical care when needed.

But it’s not that simple. Our detention facilities were not designed to handle tens of thousands of children and families (or those pretending to be families). You can only accomplish what your resources allow.

And note that these experts utter not one word about how we got into this mess in the first place. They do not criticize those who created and continue to enable the legal and social environments that caused the current crisis. The bioethicists have nothing to say about shameful political gamesmanship among the Democrats in the House of Representatives who cruelly delayed desperately needed billions earmarked to improve our capacity to care for these children, which, at the very least, is relevant to the current emergency.

There is not a single syllable spent castigating open-border activists who conspire to obliterate immigration norms and convince the destitute to make the sometimes deadly trek north. There is nothing about the ethical obligation to change the Flores decision that creates such a legal conundrum for the administration with regard to housing families with children. In fact, the letter explicitly supports it! Nor do they issue any call to increase the number of immigration judges dramatically so asylum cases can be adjudicated quickly and control restored.

There is no mention of the fact that children are often rented out to non-relatives so they can obtain immigration processing to which they would not otherwise be entitled. Nor, do these experts refer to the scourge of sex and other human trafficking that our broken immigration policies and enforcement mechanisms enable.

There is no question that border detention facilities are in desperate shape. There is much blame to go around — from a president whose language use gives credence to charges of racism that make the allegations of abuse in detention more credible, to a bipartisan political establishment with scant interest in controlling the borders, to politicians whose policy positions attract people to come here illegally, to those who want to destroy national sovereignty and are taking advantage of the current debacle.

But the bioethicists aren’t trying to remedy any of that. Rather, they have engaged in a cynical, virtue-projecting gambit intended primarily for its political effect. Their letter should be judged in that context.

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