Sandra Day O’Connor
(November 2007)

The sad and remarkable story involving former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor points up the distinction between the rigidity of morality and the ongoing process of ethical analysis.

O’Connor’s husband is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and no longer recognizes her. He has apparently developed a romantic relationship with a fellow patient at the hospital where he is being cared for, and O’Connor, recognizing that the illness has eliminated their marital bonds, is supporting his efforts to find affection and companionship in his diminished and deteriorating mental state. This is an act of love by O’Connor, and unequivocally ethical.

Most moral codes would not permit it; rules are rules. When morality and law fails, ethics must step in. O’Connor is honoring her marital vows and the principles of kindness, fairness, sacrifice and selflessness by showing her continuing love of her husband by letting him out of his side of a relationship that he no longer recalls or understands.

Being willing to go beyond strict interpretations of rules and law when extraordinary circumstances loomed was an approach that O’Connor brought to her Supreme Court opinions, and she was much criticized for it. She has demonstrated her integrity by applying the same principle to her personal life, and it has served both her and her husband well.

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