ColumnsRespect Life/Social Justice

The understanding of health care as a human right

By Mark Schmidt
Special to The Witness

Pope Francis declared the Jubilee Year of Mercy he called all of us to “rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead.”

One of those works of mercy mentioned, heal the sick, is directly related to our responsibility as individual persons and as a society to heal those who are ill. Engaging in this work of mercy not only brings about the physical healing of those whose health has deteriorated but also our own soul, as, through mercy, we become more like Christ, and we fulfill his command found in Matthew 25, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”

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In addition to our call for mercy is our obligation to recognize the intrinsic dignity of the human person, made in the likeness and image of God. Such dignity can never be forfeited and is not dependent upon a person’s actions, abilities, status, character, geography, citizenship, wealth or religion. It is that dignity from which many of our human rights flow, the right to life being paramount and directly related to the human right to health care.

This past week Bishop Frank Dewane, chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote Congress to encourage our government to ensure “that a repeal of key provisions of the Affordable Care Act ought not be undertaken without the concurrent passage of a replacement plan that ensures access to adequate health care for the millions of people who now rely upon it for their well-being. Particularly for those who would otherwise be required to use limited resources to meet basic needs such as food and shelter rather than seek medical care, the introduction of great uncertainty at this time would prove particularly devastating.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops have long been proponents of universal health care for each and every person residing in our nation. Such a proposal is not unique to the U.S. Catholic bishops. Pope Francis recently stated, “Health, indeed, is not a consumer good, but a universal right which means that access to health care services cannot be a privilege” (Address to “Doctors with AfricaCUAMM,” May 7, 2016).

Pope Francis’ words may come as a surprise to some. But his declaration of health care as a human right is not original to his papacy. He is simply repeating long-held Catholic teaching. Pope Saint John XXIII, in his encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” declared: “We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services” (no. 11).

This right to health care was then repeated on many occasions by his predecessors. Pope Saint John Paul II said: “The expenses involved in health care, especially in the case of accidents at work, demand that medical assistance should be easily available for workers, and that as far as possible it should be cheap or even free of charge”(“On Human Work”). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated in 2010: “It is necessary to work with greater commitment at all levels to ensure that the right to health care is rendered effective by furthering access to basic health care.”

Echoing Pope Benedict XVI, his Secre­tary of State Cardinal Bertone reiterated that: “Justice requires guaranteed uni­versal access to health care. Privati­za­tion [should] not become a threat to the ac­cessibility, availability and quality of health care goods and services.” The right to health care is also included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraphs 1908, 2211, 2288, and in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

As our elected officials debate various proposals regarding health care in America, particularly the Affordable Care Act, one principle that must be recognized in whatever eventual law is adopted is that each and every person, regardless of their status in society, ability to pay, physical/mental ability, pre-existing conditions, cost of care already received, immigration status or even age, has a human right to adequate health care just as they have rights to life, food, clothing, water, shelter, emigration, religious liberty, among others.

Pray that our leaders in government recognize the inalienable right to health care and such a right is reflected in our laws and economics. As Catholics we are called by the church to participate in the political process beyond voting. As each is able, we are all encouraged to communicate with those in positions of government who are responsible for health care in our nation, states, and communities to encourage them and advocate for health care for all “in a manner that includes protections for human life, conscience and immigrants” (Bishop Dewane, Letter to Congress).

Let us carry on Christ’s mercy beyond the Jubilee of Mercy that ended a few months ago and participate in the corporal work of mercy by advocating for health care reform that secures the inalienable right to adequate health care for every single person.

Schmidt is the director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.