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Health Care: What's a Catholic to Do?

Q U I C K S C A N

Catholic Health Care
The Bottom Line


The health-care reform debate has been going on in our country for decades. Post-Depression Roosevelt and Truman tried it, as did Nixon and, more recently, Clinton. Rising health-care costs made health-care reform a major campaign issue last November.

Increasing numbers of Americans are falling out of our health-care system, including growing numbers of the middle class. More than a fourth (27 percent) of the U.S. population is without health-care insurance. That’s 47 million Americans who lack health insurance, up from about 40 million in 1980, an almost 20-percent rise. Even for the insured, personal costs are skyrocketing.

President Barack Obama tried unsuccessfully to force Congress to develop a reform plan during the past few months. Congress and much of the American public have forced a slowdown as the complicated debate continues. Seeing conservatives rally anti-reform opposition, the president late last summer traveled afar to take his appeal to the people.

President Obama has affirmed that health-care reform means insurance for all and self-selected insurance for those who can afford it.

As today’s debate ripens, political liberals and conservatives have mounted enormous advertising campaigns. “Harry and Louise,” featured in a well-known TV ad opposing a reformed health-care plan in the 1990s, have now returned, this time on the pro-reform side. On the other side, the company that produced the Kerry-sinking “swift boat” ads is generating opposition ads and disingenuously speaking of “death panels.”

Campaigns on the left, right and middle have spent upwards of $57 million on TV ads, most of it since July. It’s a whopping effort on both sides. The essential question is this: Is health-care reform a government takeover (socialized medicine), as political conservatives claim, or is it justice (a longneeded move toward health care for those who have none), the claim of political liberals?

Clearly, we are a nation divided.

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Catholic Health Care

Our U.S. Catholic bishops have advocated reform for 30 years. The Church, after all, is a major player in U.S. health care. Bishop William Murphy, of Rockville Centre, New York, is chair of the U.S. bishops’ committee that deals with domestic issues. In a July 21 letter to Congress, he laid out Catholic concerns in the health-care debate.

In his letter Bishop Murphy noted that health care is not “just another cause” for the Catholic community. “Health care is a critical component of the Church’s ministry. The Church provides health care, purchases health care and picks up the pieces of a failing health-care system.” Catholic hospitals care for a sixth of all U.S. patients, notes Murphy: “We bring both strong convictions and everyday experience.”

He makes a solid case for sweeping reform, saying, “The bishops’ conference believes health-care reform should be truly universal and it should be genuinely affordable.” It is a “moral imperative and a vital national obligation.”

He devotes much of his letter to two deep concerns for all Catholics: 1) respect for life and dignity, and 2) access for all.

To be clear: Catholics oppose abortion, and any health-care reform that includes abortion is not acceptable to the Catholic community. The early versions of the plan did so, in some form.

As Bishop Murphy states so well, “No health-care reform plan should compel us or others to pay for the destruction of human life, whether through government funding or mandatory coverage of abortion.”

This respect for life must also honor the sanctity of the end of life, respect for life “from conception until natural death.”

The second pillar of the Catholic position is access for all. “Decent health care is not a privilege,” writes Murphy, “but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of every person.”

Access to health care should not depend on the type of work people have, whether or not their parents work, people’s age, where they live or even where they were born. He notes what many well-off Americans would seemingly rather ignore: that “many lower-income families simply lack the resources to meet their health-care expenses.”

Is this the America that we want to live in? One with a growing number of people left on their own to deal with their illnesses?

We think not.

Opponents of an increased role for government often cite the “long lines” and “poor care” of programs in Canada and Europe. Why else would some Canadians come here for treatment? Others speak of efficient, affordable health care overseas and in Canada.

Either way, people of goodwill can’t help but wrangle over various aspects of health reform while the debate ensues. This is America, after all. But we have to keep in mind the bias of our Catholic faith, one that looks out especially for the poor and vulnerable.

Wasn’t that the discovery of St. Francis and countless other Christians over the centuries? Babies in the womb are the most vulnerable of all—we must protect them and their mothers. Our faith compels us to stand up for the poor and anyone without proper health care.

Our bishops are on the right track in their advice to Congress. Don’t support abortion. Make health care accessible to all. That’s reform we can stand behind.—J.F.


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