The Risks of a “Right” to Healthcare

Deal W. Hudson
August 10, 2009

Through the official statements of the USCCB, the Catholic bishops assert that health care is a “basic human right.” Since the release of their 1981 pastoral letter on health and health care, the bishops have consistently argued that the federal government is responsible for establishing “a comprehensive health care system that will ensure a basic level of health care for all Americans.”

Since millions are uninsured in the current system, they argue, it is necessary for the federal government to remedy this denial of the right to health care by ensuring “adequate funding for this basic level of care through a national health insurance program.”

The need for universal health care, guaranteed by the federal government, is so deeply felt among the bishops and other Catholic leaders that even the prospect of abortion funding has yet to evoke much of a public protest against the bills presently in the House and Senate. Apart from official letters from Justin Cardinal Rigali and Bishop William F. Murphy, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York is the only bishop who has spoken out strongly against the bills due to their abortion provisions.

The presence of such funding alone should be sufficient to quell Catholic support for the legislation – but so far, it hasn’t. Perhaps more Catholics would question the necessity of the present suggestion for health care reform if they realized the central argument – health care as a human right – is muddled and, therefore, dangerous.

To assert health care is a human right is the beginning, rather than the end, of the debate about whether universal health care insurance should be provided by the federal government. To say citizens have a right to a good – in this case, medical care – always necessitates our obligation to remove unreasonable obstacles to obtaining it, but it does not necessitate that the good in question is provided by the government.

To assert the right to health care as the end of the argument leaps over both prudential reasoning and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which stipulates that a social problem should first be dealt with at a local level before being addressed at higher, governmental levels.

Defenders of government-funded health care argue that subsidiarity now demands that the federal government provide what the present system of public and private coverage has not. Private insurance companies are labeled as “greedy,” along with the employers who have cut back, or eliminated, health care benefits. The only way to secure the health care right, they say, is by handing it over to the federal government.

For a moment, let’s assume that the assertion of a right to health care is sufficient to establish the necessity of universal care funded by the federal government. Will this provide a solution to the problem of respecting the right to health care? On the contrary: If you give away for free unlimited amounts of a good thing, there will be such an insatiable demand that even the government will not have the resources to satisfy it.

The rationing of health care services is inevitable. Since government-run health care cannot supply all citizens with the health care they desire, many will complain their right to health care is being denied. The government will respond by saying that it reserves the right to determine what a citizen’s right to “basic” health care means, in terms of actual medical treatment.

Under the proposed legislation, the federal government will be making the decision about when and where to deny individual requests for health care. The complaints formerly made about private insurance carriers will be directed by the federal bureaucracy. The problem will not be solved, merely relocated.

Giving the responsibility for adjudicating the meaning of the health care right to the government poses obvious problems for Catholics, and should be a deal-breaker for the bishops. We can be sure its rationing will limit medical care for the elderly. We can also be sure it will include abortion and euthanasia counseling.

Catholics will be handing the morally charged responsibility of medical treatment to political leadership whose operating assumptions about the human person are antithetical to Catholic social teaching. The political leadership in both the Congress and the White House has never been more pro-abortion. That same leadership is now revealing its support for what they euphemistically call “end-of-life” counseling.

Not only will the proposed legislation be unable to secure the health care right as asserted by the bishops, but it also will refract the notion of health care itself through a first principle that is exactly the opposite of the Catholic Church’s: “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death” (Dignitas Personae).

There is no doubt that the deficiencies in the present health care system must be addressed. Most of all, those presently uninsured need to be folded into a new system of universal health coverage; but this must be done without eliminating their individual choice. The goal of universal coverage can be reached without handing our choices about medical care over to a federal g

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