U.S. Capitol

This is the first of a five-part series on the USCCB’s moral criteria for health care reform.

Part 1: Affirm the dignity of life

By Michael Lewis, Associate Director

Health care reform is once again dominating our national political discussion.  During the recent election campaign, both parties pledged to revisit the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, promising everything from tweaks to the existing health care program to a wide-reaching repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act.  Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveiled the American Health Care Act, a proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

As Congress begins its debate on reforming health care, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has sent a letter to members of the House of Representatives and the Senate outlining five moral criteria that should guide any and all discussion of health care reform. They are:

  1. Respect for life and dignity
  2. Honoring conscience rights
  3. Access for all
  4. Truly affordable
  5. Comprehensive and high-quality

As Catholics, caring for our brothers and sisters—materially and spiritually—is a moral obligation.  Health care, therefore, is a “fundamental issue of human life and dignity,” and a “critical component of the Catholic Church’s ministry,” the USCCB writes.  Indeed, one in six Americans receives health care from a Catholic hospital.  Here in Virginia, the Sisters of Bon Secours run one of the largest health care systems in the Commonwealth, serving the greater Richmond and Hampton Roads regions, providing $159 million in combined charity care and other community benefits.

Let’s take a closer look now at the first, and bedrock, criterion: Respect for life and dignity.  The provision of health care must recognize the fundamental dignity of each and every patient, born and unborn.  Health care, the bishops write, “is not a privilege, but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of every human person.”

The art of medicine aims to heal and preserve life, not end it.  Abortion, therefore, is not “health care.”  In fact, the Hippocratic Oath, which has historically guided the ethics of the medical profession for thousands of years, says, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.  In purity and in divine law will I carry out my life and my art.”

In keeping with medicine’s purpose of healing and preserving life, abortion has no place in genuine health reform.  As the bishops write, “no health reform plan should compel us or others to pay for the destruction of human life, whether through government funding or mandatory coverage of abortion.”

Many details of the American Health Care Act remain murky and numerous concerns have surfaced, but there is reason to hope that any future reform will reflect the bishops’ call to extend Hyde Amendment protections to all relevant health plans.  Meeting last week with pro-life leaders, Vice President Pence pledged the administration’s opposition to any subsidies for abortion on demand in the health care reform bill.  The American Health Care Act prohibits any federal funds or premium tax credits from being used for health plans that cover abortion on demand, and strips funding from Planned Parenthood, the leading provider of abortion in the United States.  In fact, the President recently challenged Planned Parenthood to stop doing abortions in exchange for maintaining its access to federal funds, a proposal that, unfortunately, Planned Parenthood rejected.

As the debate on health care reform moves forward, we look forward to bringing you the other four parts of this blog series and invite you to join your voices to those of Church leaders as they continue to provide a much-needed vision for compassionate, accessible, life-affirming health care.  Please stay tuned!