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Defining Human Dignity Down

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“As Americans, we respect human dignity,” President Obama said during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. “It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims … why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.”

Some noticed a marked absence from Obama’s list of humans worthy of respect or dignity:

The bill Carney references was, as Politico reporters Burgess Everett and Lauren French noted earlier this month, “an easy-to-explain proposal [Republicans] believe will animate their base without alienating swing voters who might be turned off by a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade.” The bill specifically targeted abortions that would happen during the 20th week, approximately halfway through a pregnancy—“the time at which anti-abortion activists maintain that unborn fetuses can feel pain,” wrote Everett and French. Although Americans are still split on the abortion issue, according to a 2014 Pew poll, Quinnipiac University found that 60 percent of Americans supported the 20-week ban.

The bill has now been pulled, reportsPolitico’s Jake Sherman, “after a revolt from a large swath of female members of Congress, who were concerned about language that said rape victims would not be able to get abortions unless they reported the incident to authorities.” This was also the reason the White House gave for disapproving of the bill: “[T]he provision that requires rape and incest survivors to report the crime … in order to have access to an abortion after the 20-week mark demonstrates a complete disregard for the women who experience sexual assault and the barriers they may face in reporting,” it said in a Tuesday press release.

But I do not think this was a conservative attempt to block suffering women from having an abortion. It was an attempt to offer life, as often as possible, to those denied life—to those who could experience extensive pain in the extermination of that life. Equating the pro-life position with anti-woman sentiment is unfair—not only to the deeper understanding of human dignity inherent in the pro-life position, but also to the countless women who are pro-life, and believe that it is an incredibly important issue for the health and flourishing of women. Making sure rape and incest survivors report their case to a law enforcement agency or child welfare authority wasn’t about being insensitive or cruel: it was about making sure that justice is procured for the victim, that they are able to receive ongoing support and care, all while preserving life.

Many of the difficulties of this debate are found in the fact that we have different definitions of “human dignity,” and what properly constitutes an issue deserving of that name. President Obama believes “women’s rights” are a human dignity issue, but he does not put “the rights of the unborn” under the same category. He defends the rights of rape victims, while denying the rights of a baby (or “fetus,” depending on the political language you prefer).

It seems that Obama’s use of the word “dignity” is dependent upon his definition of the most important human rights: choice, equality (of opportunity and treatment), justice, and tolerance. The examples he gave during Tuesday’s speech match those values.

But an older, perhaps more classical conception of human dignity reaches beyond the circumstantial, and speaks to the verycore of who we are as human beings. It is founded upon the idea of human life as sacred, as imago dei, meaning that no matter the circumstances of a person’s life, he or she is precious and immeasurably valuable. This is perhaps the greatest of all equalizers: no matter the place or culture, the poverty or vulnerability, each life matters. And this is why, under this conception of human dignity, the unborn child cannot be left out.

The president indulged in additional terminological cherry-picking on Tuesday night when advocating for his “pro-family” policies. In actuality, his legislation only supports a specific type of family. He wants pro-family tax reform, “so long as the tax credit only pays for daycare and excludes families with a stay-at-home parent,” writes Ross Douthat.

Obama’s proposed “second-earner tax credit” is worth $500 for dual-income families in which the lower-income spouse earns between $10,000 and $120,000. He also called for expanding a tax credit for commercial child care—“a 50-percent tax credit for a parent’s first $2,000 in babysitting or daycare costs … available only for parents who use the child care to do paid work,” Carney wrote Wednesday [emphasis mine]. Obama defended this measure by saying that dual-income households incur “additional costs in the form of commuting costs, professional expenses, child care, and, increasingly, elder care … these work-related costs can contribute to a sense that work isn’t worth it, especially for parents of young children.”

But what about the stay-at-home mother, who realizes that—though she does all the kid-watching, driving, cleaning, cooking, shopping, and even schooling—her work isn’t “worth it,” in the eyes of her government? That her attempts to save money, invest in her children’s lives, and care for her home are somehow inferior to those of a mother working outside the home?

“Yes, it is costly for a mother to enter the workforce,” Carney notes. “But it is also costly for a mother to exit or stay out of the workforce. … Obama has decided that the cost of a mother returning to work and placing her children in daycare is something he wants to subsidize … he values working parents more than stay-at-home parents.”

Obama said, near the end of Tuesday’s speech, that’s he’s hoping for a more united and respectful political conversation this year, “one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.” Family policy issues are often characterized by just such controversy, stereotype, and belligerence.

Perhaps this is because we fear each other’s judgment, the implications of the views held by the “other side”—that, say, conservatives don’t care about women, or that liberals don’t care about unborn babies, that stay-at-home moms are lazy, or working mothers don’t care enough for their families. These are truly controversial, heated topics. We get angry and belligerent about these issues because they present us with fearful alternatives to our current modes of thinking, or current modes of life. They force us to ask moral or personal questions that are incredibly difficult to answer.

But it is because they are so important, because they mean so much to the American populace, that we should talk about them. It is because the lives of both babies and their mothers matter, that both stay-at-home moms and working moms matter, that we need to discuss and contend and work through these issues. Our discussions require empathy, understanding, and compassion.

The 20-week abortion ban was conservatives’ attempt to reach across the aisle: to, without presenting black-and-white ultimatums, present some of their views on human dignity to the American public. The American public answered in support, but the bill has now been lost, perhaps to a fear of confronting just what a full understanding of human dignity might demand.

We need such policies, but both Republicans and Democrats are too often afraid to offer families the support they need.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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