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Is ‘waterboarding’ interrogation immoral?

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (Catholic San Francisco) - Certain words cause a shudder in most people. They conjure up an aura of horror. Examples include “the final solution” and “ethnic cleansing.” I would add to the list, waterboarding.

Is waterboarding a form of torture that deserves moral condemnation?

Torture comes from a Latin word meaning “twist” and refers to “the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce.” In “The Church in the Modern World,” the Second Vatican Council names “physical and mental torture” an “offense against human dignity” and “criminal.” ( no. 27 )

Waterboarding is “simulated drowning” whereby a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water, and made to believe he might drown. In one of its historical forms, it meant strapping a person to a board that rested on a fulcrum, like a seesaw, with the torturer on one end able to plunge the prisoner’s head into a pool of water.

According to the former chief of training at the Navy’s Survival Evasion, Resistance and Escape ( SERE ) School, waterboarding is a “controlled drowning” that “occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team.”

The team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the psychological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from a painful psychological experience to horrific, suffocating punishment, to the final death spiral. A prisoner could potentially die during waterboarding, even if only by accident.

Yes, but is it torture?

The method is so dangerous that a medical team must be on hand. An International Committee of the Red Cross has commented that physician involvement in coercive interrogations constitutes “a flagrant violation of medical ethics.”

Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, names waterboarding “torture.” Torture has long been illegal under U.S. law. Since 1984, the legal definition of torture in the United States is “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” that is “intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.”

The United States is a party to the various Geneva Conventions whereby soldiers and military physicians are bound by Common Article III which goes well beyond torture to ban any “humiliating and degrading treatment” of prisoners.

For more than 200 years, the U.S. military has proudly set a worldwide example not merely by declining to torture captives, but by treating them with humanity and dignity. However, since 2001, U.S. policy has been redefining what constitutes torture. Although recently taking a different position, Senator John McCain said about waterboarding, “It was used in the Spanish Inquisition. It was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.”

President Bush has defended coercive interrogations. He relies on legal advice which tells him that waterboarding is lawful.

The moral perspective

From a moral point of view, however, waterboarding is torture. It degrades the prisoner and the torturer. When physicians become a part of this process, they undermine the fundamental tenet of medical ethics, “First, do no harm.” It is unacceptable for physicians to claim ignorance of medical ethics around any abuse of prisoners, let alone abuse that rises to the level of torture.

Physicians cannot use their medical knowledge and skill to hurt prisoners. This constitutes an egregious violation of medical ethics. Participation in waterboarding is blatantly unethical.

On March 11, 2008, President Bush gave a 42 - minute speech to the National Religious Broadcasters at their annual convention. He said, “We believe that every human being bears the image of our maker. No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.” Waterboarding and other means of torture create a master/slave relationship. Waterboarding does not honor the belief and fact that every person is made in God’s image.

(Sulpician Father Gerald Coleman is vice president for ethics for the Daughters of Charity Health System and a lecturer in moral theology at Santa Clara University.)


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of Catholic San Francisco (,official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Calif.



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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Paige Cutcliffe
    4 years ago

    How appropriate that Father Coleman is affiliated with the Daughters of Charity Health System. I think St. Vincent de Paul would be in full agreement with Father Coleman's position. Catholic health organizations have held fast to lessons in Jesus' parable of the "Good Samaritan". We must be mindful of the needs of all, even if it may be contrary to our own self interest..

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