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Decent Health Care Is a Human Right


Catholic Involvement
Protecting Society's Common Good
Respecting Life at All Stages
Working Out the Finances

In spite of the March 21 vote in the House of Representatives to adopt health-care reform and the Senate's March 25 vote to amend its earlier legislation, questions remain about financing this reform. Like the national right to self-defense, health care is a fundamental human right that somehow needs to be financed.

If health care is one more consumer product, talking about equal access to it is wasting everyone's time. Commodities are always subject to the law of supply and demand. In that case, a twisted golden rule (Whoever has the gold makes the rules!) reigns supreme.

But what if, in some way, health care is a basic human right? What if it flows from our fundamental human dignity?


Catholic Involvement

Without denying the right to just compensation for a person's work, the Roman Catholic Church has for centuries gravitated toward the view that health care is a basic human right.

Catholics in the United States today are probably more involved in hospitals, clinics and extended-care facilities than Catholics anywhere else have been in the past 2,000 years. Sixteen percent of U.S. hospital beds are in one of the 624 Catholic hospitals. More than 10 percent of Catholic hospitals worldwide are in this country.

Communities of religious sisters established most of those hospitals. They continue primarily because their vision is being fulfilled by talented and dedicated lay staffs, supported by the local communities that they serve.

In each of his 13 encyclicals, but especially in The Gift of Life (1995), the late Pope John Paul II tirelessly presented human dignity as a consequence of our being created in God's image. Pope Benedict XVI continues to reaffirm strongly this divine basis for human rights.

Let's be clear: The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are based on the inestimable value of a single human life.

As Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) reminds us, wounded people are our brothers and sisters whom we need to treat with compassion. No one is "off the radar" for Christ's followers.

Not everyone in this country is a Christian, but compassion is an important value in all the world's major religions and even among secular humanists. No civilization can long survive without a strong commitment to the common good of its members.

Concern for the common good of society undergirds our laws requiring mandatory vaccinations and the reporting of infectious diseases. Similarly, we have made the sale of human organs illegal. We know that money does not resolve all health-care issues.

The United States is now the only major industrialized country without universal health care. Isn't that unjust?

In a May 1994 address to the National Press Club, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin cited a June 1993 statement of the U.S. bishops that called for comprehensive health care for every person living in the United States. "Health care cannot be successfully reformed if it is considered only an economic matter," he said.

On February 24, 2010, the bishops who head the USCCB committees on domestic justice and human development, on migration and on pro-life activities had addressed a letter to congressional leaders. They had called for "genuine health-care reform that will protect the life, dignity, consciences and health of all."

Bishops William Murphy and John Wester and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (heads of those committees, respectively) had stressed that a health-care plan should be "truly universal and not be denied to those in need because of their condition, age, where they come from or when they arrive here.

"We will continue to work vigorously to advance true health-care reform that ensures affordability and access, keeps long-standing prohibitions on abortion funding, upholds conscience rights, and addresses the health needs of immigrants.

"Dialogue should continue and no legislation should be finalized until and unless these basic moral criteria are met," they had added.

The complete position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding health-care reform—including their post-passage comments—is available at

Drawing up a program for universal health care is easy; figuring out how to pay for it continues to be a challenge that legislators will probably need to work out in the next several years.

As they do that, legislators need to remember that before it is a political issue, health care is a question about what promotes our common good.

Members of Congress have legitimate differences over how much the government should be involved in our health-care system. It already is massively involved through Medicare, Medicaid and other programs.

Financing any change in the current system will require a deep commitment to society's common good. Although health care will always involve money, we cannot afford to treat it as simply one more consumer product.

Unless we address our health-care crisis comprehensively, can we truly say that we are "One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all"?--P.M.

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