Health Care is a Basic Human Right

Health Care is a Human Right
By Tom Allio, Senior Director, Diocesan Social Action Office

In his September 3rd opinion piece, entitled “Health Care Costs Money: Real Rights Don’t,” Kevin O’Brien unfairly criticizes the position of the U.S. Bishops on health care reform. If you believe O’Brien, the Bishops are confused and that health care as a basic right is a “principle based on a false premise.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

It is long standing Catholic teaching that health care is a basic human right. This is not merely the opinion of a few Bishops; rather this perspective is drawn from Biblical and theological principles, as well as, the encyclicals of Popes. Specifically, Pope John XX111 in his well respected 1963 encyclical, entitled “Pacem In Terris,” (Peace on Earth), wrote: “Man (and woman) 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. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived the means of livelihood.” From a Catholic perspective, these rights flow from the sanctity and dignity of human life. Clearly, the right to life is a fundamental principle upon which all other rights are derived.

Drawing from John XX111, the U.S. Bishops issued a pastoral statement in 1981, entitled “Health and Health Care.” According to the Bishops, “Because all human beings are created according to God’s image, they possess a basic human dignity which calls for the utmost reverence. On the individual level this means a special responsibility to care for one’s own health and that of others. On the societal level this calls for the responsibility by society to provide adequate health care which is a basic human right.” For almost three decades, the U.S. Bishops have consistently advocated for national health care policy that guarantees adequate coverage for all while maintaining a pluralistic approach.

For the Church, health care is more than a commodity; rather “it is a basic human right, an essential safeguard of human life and dignity. We believe our people’s health care should not depend on where they work, how much their parents earn, or where they live.” (1993 statement of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform.)

O’Brien also argues that the “card” the Bishops should play in this debate is that the lack of basic health care for some people is an “injustice.” This perspective has never been lost in the Church’s advocacy. As one of the largest health care providers in the United States with some 624 hospitals and other medical facilities, the Catholic Church offers compassionate and professional treatment to millions of uninsured each year. On a daily basis, Catholic professionals provide the healing ministry of Jesus to those who have no other alternatives.

In brief, the position of the U.S. Bishops is as follows:

 a truly universal health policy with respect for human life and dignity. Continue the federal ban on funding abortions.
 access for all with a special concern for the poor and inclusion of legal immigrants.
 pursuing the common good and preserving pluralism including freedom of conscience and a variety of options.
 restraining costs and applying them equitably across the spectrum of players.
For the statements and resources of the U.S. Bishops on health care, visit

September 3, 2009

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