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Bishops support universal health care policy

John Tierney | Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series examining issues in the health care debate in the United States. The first installment looked at the debate’s economic questions.

Universal health care is an intrinsic human right that proceeds from human dignity, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

But the bishops have stated that any universal health care initiative must be tempered by a respect for life.

“Because Catholic Social Teaching comes out of human dignity, the Church cares not only about the dignity of life, but also the quality of life,” associate director of the Center for Social Concerns Bill Purcell said.”Because Catholic Social Teaching (CSC) comes out of human dignity, the Church cares not only about the dignity of life, but also the quality of life,” Purcell said.

The Church understands health care as a basic human right, even though it’s not covered by the United States Constitution, Purcell said. “Under the principle of right and responsibility, health care is a human right,” he said.

He cited education as another example of a human right under the principle of right and responsibility.

Health care was first addressed by the Vatican in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “On the Development of Peoples,” which expanded the realm of Catholic Social Teaching, Purcell said.

According to this encyclical, “the development of people is not just about peace, but about the whole development of people,” Purcell said. Development “includes things in the human condition.”

This emphasis on health care as vital to human dignity has led Catholic bishops to talk about universal health care for the past 30 years, Purcell said.

The Church affirms there must be “universal, affordable health care for everyone in the United States,” Purcell said.

The health care system must include everyone, “even those at the fringes,” he said.

The Church’s concern with the dignity of life, however, includes not only the quality of life, but also the dignity of life.

“A cornerstone is that there can’t be health care that would be in violation of that human dignity,” Purcell said. “It must protect life from consumption until natural death.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) declares “the current health care system is in need of fundamental reform,” according to their Web site, www.usccb.org

“When millions of Americans are without health coverage, when rising costs threaten the coverage of millions more, when infant mortality remains shockingly high, the right to health care is seriously undermined and our health care system is in need of fundamental reform,” according to the bishops’ pastoral letter “A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform,” which was first released in 1993.

The bishops believe health care is a fundamental right.

According to the Web site, “Every person, created in the image and likeness of God, has a right to life and to those things necessary to sustain life, including affordable, quality health care.”

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical released this year, “Caritas in Veritate,” that health care should not be the exclusive property of the wealthy.

He denounced the “excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care.”

Benedict’s position on health care is reflected in the U.S. bishops’ concern that “the poor will be left out in health care reform,” Purcell said.

Dignity of life in health care

President Barack Obama’s mention of the conscience clause for abortion in his Commencement address at Notre Dame last May was a critical development in the health care debate.

During the presidential campaign, Obama supported the Freedom of Choice Act, which would force faith-based health care facilities to perform abortions. In his Commencement address, however, he shied away from that position.

“Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion and draft a sensible conscience clause,” Obama said.

He also acknowledged an ethical dimension to health care in general.

“[Let’s] make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women,” Obama said.

Cardinal Francis George, president of the USCCB, released a statement following Obama’s address supporting his inclusion of the conscience clause.

“I am grateful for President Obama’s statement on May 17 that we should all ‘honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion,’ and his support for conscience clauses advancing this goal,” George’s statement said.

Purcell said the Church will only support a health care reform plan that accepts this principle of ethics and that includes a conscience clause.

“There has to be protection of conscience rights,” Purcell said. “One of the largest providers of health care is the CHA [Catholic Health Association], and we can’t have Catholic hospital violating our own principles.”

Although the Church will not support a health care plan that publicly funds abortion, it does call for a plan that “safeguards health for children and has an adequate safety net for the poor and vulnerable,” he said.

“Yes, there needs to be health care; it has to be universal, especially for the poor and the vulnerable; but health care has to protect life from conception to natural death,” Purcell said.

Role of the Church

Purcell said people often question whether the Church has a right to speak in the health care arena.

He said the Church should play a role, and not just because it “has a moral voice.”

“The Church is providing health care,” he said, citing clinics and Catholic hospitals.

“The Church often picks up the pieces when the system breaks down,” Purcell said.

He listed the works of Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul and the emergency rooms of Catholic hospitals as examples of how the Church responds to the broken health care system.

“If the system’s broken, Catholic institutions pick up the pieces,” Purcell said.

Despite the Church’s role in the health care reform debate, Purcell said the bishops “won’t go into the prescriptive.”

“They want people to argue the details out, to find out what way is best,” he said.

The bishops will promote various pieces of legislation, but they will not take a lead in proposing legislation.

“They don’t want to be seen as ideological,” Purcell said. “The bottom line is there are problems with both parties, but there’s also good with both parties.”

He said the bishops seek a health care solution that is based on the principle of right and responsibility and on the dignity of the human person.

­­”People of goodwill may disagree with how that comes out,” Purcell said.