BEND — There is an ongoing debate and discussion about the best way to help assure that everyone in America has access to healthcare and healthcare benefits. This is a tremendously important issue both from a moral and from a social perspective. The Gospel mandate to preach the Good News to the poor and to love our neighbor is not something which is purely spiritual. It has ramifications in the concrete details of our lives. Making sure that those with financial or emotional struggles have access to those things necessary for the promotion and preservation of good health is both an ecclesial and a social responsibility. The expansive array of Catholic medical centers, the healing arm of the Catholic Church, offers a direct response to this mandate. These centers not only provide for those who have the ability to pay or who are properly insured but they also provide tens of millions of dollars of charitable care for those who are otherwise unable to pay. It could be argued that most people in America have access to healthcare, maybe not on a consistent basis, but certainly in cases of emergency and major medical needs. What a number of Americans lack is a specific healthcare benefit, namely insurance. One could perhaps argue that there are some things in the healthcare industry, it is a major business, which need to be looked at more carefully but, in general, our healthcare institutions do an excellent job. The present push for comprehensive healthcare reform certainly touches, in a very dramatic way, our healthcare institutions but the reform is really about how healthcare is funded.
Unfortunately, the attempt at a global restructuring of how healthcare is funded cannot avoid the very dangerous ground of determining what is covered under the guise of healthcare. No one would oppose the covering of pre-natal care. No one would oppose the covering of cancer treatment. No one would oppose covering appendectomies. There are other procedures, however, which are gravely immoral and we, as a people, ought not be coerced into assuring that these are both available and paid for by tax or premium dollars. Further, no one and no Catholic institution should be coerced into providing treatments which are deemed immoral. In the Catholic and Natural Law tradition this clearly includes direct and intentional abortion, even that which is deemed “medically necessary.” It includes the provision of contraception. It includes sterilization surgeries whether tubal ligations or vasectomies. It includes assisted suicide. It includes, in my view, the very questionable use of “emergency contraception,” which needs much more thorough analysis and study before it could be considered safe and morally acceptable. It includes various approaches to the treatment of infertility. It includes other procedures which might be morally objectionable to some religious groups who have a right, within the bounds of human reason, to the free exercise of their religion without being coerced by the government to participate in something which runs completely contrary to their beliefs. Thus, a mandatory funding of abortion and other objectionable procedures in a public healthcare plan imposes an intolerable and unacceptable burden. It coerces a people of faith to pay for that which is morally repugnant to them. This is not objecting to a tax because we oppose the paving of a road in the county, this is opposing a tax which would be used to kill people.
It was for these reasons that the bishop chairmen of three United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) committees (Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Committee on Migration) wrote to the House and Senate on Oct. 8 voicing strong opposition to the current language in the reform proposals. In that letter they note: “the Senate Finance Committee rejected a conscience rights amendment accepted earlier by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. If final legislation does not meet our principles, we will have no choice but to oppose the bill. We remain committed to working with the Administration, Congressional leadership, and our allies to produce final health reform legislation that will reflect our principles.”
In that letter the Bishops also made it clear that the rights of religion must not be eroded: “We continue to urge you to exclude mandated coverage for abortion, and incorporate longstanding policies against abortion funding and in favor of conscience rights. No one should be required to pay for or participate in abortion. It is essential that the legislation clearly apply to this new program longstanding and widely supported federal restrictions on abortion funding and mandates, and protections for rights of conscience. No current bill meets this test.”
The other two areas of concern flow from the Church’s social teaching which requires a charitable approach to the poor and to immigrants. They said, in part: “Reform should make quality health care affordable and accessible to everyone, particularly those who are vulnerable and those who live at or near the poverty level. (It must) include effective measures to safeguard the health of immigrants, their children and all of society. (It must) maintain an adequate safety net for those who remain uncovered.”
The seriousness with which the bishops have approached this matter is summed up in a single sentence: “If acceptable language in these areas cannot be found, we will have to oppose the health care bill vigorously.” That vigorous opposition has begun.
It is very important to note that the failure on the part of legislators to recognize and respect individual conscience rights is not an insignificant or incidental matter. It is another dangerous step in the direction of negating one of our most basic, personal and essential rights, the right to the free exercise of our religion.
The bishops recognize this danger and for that reason have spoken very clearly and definitively. We oppose the unjust taking of innocent human life, we oppose immoral medical practices and we even more strongly oppose the thought of being coerced to pay for them.