100 Days: Human dignity still above his pay grade

At a press conference this week President Barack Obama spoke epigrammatically about what had surprised, troubled, enchanted and humbled him during his first 100 days in office. Troubled was not quite the word, he said, but he had been "sobered by the fact that change in Washington comes slow".

For a leader who gave "change" a nationalistic and even mystical value in his campaign, the financial and political obstacles to his grand schemes for health, education and other social reforms must be agonising. At the liberal online journal Slate, they have had a Change-o-Meter ticking since day one and he has only averaged 27.7 points out of 100.

For others, however, what Obama has changed has come much too fast. "Never" would have been a good timescale for overturning the Mexico City policy, freeing up taxpayer money for groups that promote abortion internationally, but he managed that after only three days. And, in retrospect, that was not just change for the sake of change, but the beginning of a policy theme at variance with the dignity of certain human beings.

Abortion, stem cell research, conscience, and torture have been the big ethical issues of the first 100 days -- issues that go to the core of human dignity. The right of every person to life, to freedom of conscience and bodily integrity is the very bedrock of civilisation and nothing that is built on their denial is worthy to stand, be it ever so just and equitable in appearance.

By this standard, Obama scores miserably for his first 100 days. The Mexico City Policy reversal was a symbolic endorsement of pre-natal killing as a means to other ends. Recall that, during a campaign debate hosted by Rick Warren, he evaded the question of when a baby gets human rights by saying it was "above my pay grade"; now that he has the top job in the country he should have to answer that.

In the same vein, his order of March 9 lifted restrictions on federally funded human embryonic stem cell research, making it "A Good Day To Be a Doctor", according to the folks at Slate. President Obama remarked that he was rejecting the Bush administration's "false choice between sound science and moral values", a claim that he would find it difficult to substantiate in a debate, even at his current pay grade.

Between these two highly significant strikes against nascent human life, Obama signalled that health workers who disagree with the trend may find it difficult to hang onto their jobs in future. Regulations signed by George Bush in the last days of his presidency to strengthen existing federal protections for conscience rights would not be implemented. The new President’s policies, however, will be implemented, thanks to his appointment of numerous like-minded staff.

Along with other actions by the President, his moves on human life and conscience issues have completely alienated large sections of the pro-life movement () and drastically reduced the area of co-operation with the larger human dignity constituency, which includes the Catholic Church.

Obama’s saving grace from this ethical perspective has been his stand against torture. He has banned "waterboarding", an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, and approved the release of Bush administration memos detailing its use as well as other harsh methods used on terrorist suspects. This has been an extremely popular move with the left to centre of the political spectrum although some are unhappy that Obama wants to "move on" rather than prosecute those involved in torture methods.

Whatever the merits of his particular actions on this issue, his general stance against torture is the right one. "Torture," says philosophy professor and human rights activist Marc Zarrouati, "is a violation of a person's integrity, aimed at diminishing him, fragmenting him and robbing him of what makes up his dignity, namely his will, his ideals, his beliefs." Not even terrorists fall outside the human community and aggressive interrogation must not cross the boundary into inhumane treatment.

Obama is right to be "absolutely convinced" that he acted correctly on this, "Not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees… but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are."

Well said. If only he would apply the same ethical filter to the demands of the birth control lobby and the scientific community in their aggressive pursuit of certain results regardless of "who we are".

If only, in other words, we could get the hang of the President’s basic philosophy of the human person and his ethical system. Does he even have a coherent idea of human dignity? So far in his decisions on this point he has only reacted to special interest groups and popular demand, permitting what George Bush banned, banning what George Bush allowed.

But what will happen when a new situation puts him to the test? What if swine flu develops into a real epidemic and he has to decide where health security measures tip over into the unjust application of force?

What if the Tamil Tigers decide that the USA is responsible for all their wrongs and stage a 9/11 style attack on Chicago? It is easy to be against torture, but how about targeted assassinations?

What if, under the dual pressures of the financial crisis and his promises about health reform, he finds himself staring into the face of healthcare rationing? Will he fall for the euthanasia option, which already has its professional advocates and a certain popular support?

Barack Obama has been compared favourably with George Bush for, among other qualities, his intelligence. During his first 100 days as President, however, he has revealed an ambivalence towards human life and dignity that puts either his intellectual powers or his honesty in doubt. To correct this impression -- not with rhetoric about moral values and "who we are", but with consistent policy decisions -- is as urgent as emptying Guantanamo Bay prison and stopping the torture.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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