Last week the Church commemorated the feast of St. John of God, a man known for his service to the sick. In one of his letters he wrote, “So many poor people come here that I very often wonder how we can care for them all…And for all of this no payment is requested, yet Christ provides. I work here on borrowed money, a prisoner for the sake of Jesus Christ. And often my debts are so pressing that I dare not go out of the house for fear of being seized by my creditors. Whenever I see so many poor brothers and neighbors of mine suffering …with so many physical or mental ills which I cannot alleviate, then I become exceedingly sorrowful; but I trust in Christ, who knows my heart…Christ provides all things.” Though times have changed since St. John wrote his letter, service to the sick and seeking means to provide health care to those who need it is still a challenge, and may lead one to taking imperfect steps.
Also, last week President Obama continued campaigning for health care reform, and this week the House of Representatives began the reconciliation process between the already passed House and Senate versions of the health care bills. On Monday, with a vote of 17 to 19, House members prevented the Stupak provision found in the earlier House bill—one which clearly restricted the use of federal funds to subsidize abortions—from being inserted in the newly re-formed legislation. Those opposing the Stupak provision quoted a statement from the Catholic Hospital Association (CHA), while those wanting the Stupak language referred to the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB).
Both USCCB and CHA have in the past been clear in their opposition to abortion, and in their support of conscience protection for those in the medical field who refuse to provide abortion services. Both have also pushed for health care reform. It is ironic though that now both groups are being used as tools by opposing legislators. Though both Catholic groups hold the dignity of the human person as a primary principle of social justice, and similarly believe that health care is a human right (Compendiun of the Social Doctrine of the Church para. 166), it is clear that when it comes to the U.S. legislative process, and the context of party politics, such principles in reality become difficult to actualize.
Unfortunately for both the USCCB and CHA, though both wanting just and efficient health care legislation, from its beginning the move toward reform also became an opportunity for groups that believe that abortion is an ethical option when dealing with an unintended conception. Beginning with the House bill, some abortion-as-a-choice supporters began to find ways to circumvent the 30-year-old restrictions on federal money being used to fund abortions imposed by the Hyde Amendment. Initially, the formation of the Stupak provision in the House bill was a counter-reaction to language inserted in the bill that would have slowly eroded the strength of the Hyde Amendment.
Based on Monday’s 17 to 19 vote, it appears to some that abortion-as-a-choice proponents have their foot in the door of health care reform. Given the present situation, the reality of health care reform as it presently stands does not have the assurances distinctly stated in the Stupak provision. Some individuals, many of them conservative Republicans, may want to use the abortion issue and this drawback to totally sink reform, a reform they probably did not want from the start. This however has not been the position of the USCCB. Since the 1980’s, the Conference, and many of its members, have sought justice principles for reform, and continue to seek it: The same for CHA. The question now is what are Catholics to do with an imperfect piece of legislation, one which to some seems to be morally flawed?
Due to the advancements in medical technology, there is no doubt that abortions are a direct assault to the intrinsic dignity of human life in the womb. As such, the fight against the practice of abortion should continue. However, the reality is that even if the Stupak provisions were included in the legislation, the fight for defending the dignity of human life in the womb would still have to be waged. At least we can say that the present re-formed legislation does not directly endorse abortions, and according to Network, a D.C. Catholic lobbying group, the new legislation will contribute to reductions in abortions.
The dignity of human life begins from the first moment of human existence till death. To safeguard such dignity is to make a commitment which requires taking many steps. Hopefully most of these, in an ideal world, would always be perfect and in the right direction. However, this is not always the case, and it is not the case now regarding health reform. However, quoting USCCB document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizens, when faced with a morally flawed legislation, “the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and `the art of the possible’” (para. 32).
So how are we to protect life when faced with what now may or may not be possible to achieve? When it comes to the major social legislative reforms, history demonstrates that the first steps were imperfect ones. The same applies to the present case of health care reform. The process is a beginning; it is not the end, and definitely as presently formulated not totally contradictory to human dignity. The present legislation has many positive qualities which are directly supportive of the principle of human dignity. As such, it is a step in the right direction and can serve as a stepping stone in our culture’s recognition of the dignity of the human person. From this perspective, health care legislation even in its present form is not a loss, but simply one component of the struggle for safeguarding respect for the dignity of human life. Without it, even in its first imperfect form, the dignity of the life of young children, the elderly, those already ill, families, the poor and of the working poor will continue to be eroded. And maybe one of those who will benefit is a young woman, who presently without proper health care finds it difficult to carry her newly conceived child to full term. She has no assurance that she can receive health care for herself or the life within her for both now or after her child is born. And thus she may tragically choose to exercise the only affordable option our present health care system provides her with, the option to abort.
Like St. John of God, we should not be afraid to serve those who are ill or to find means, even seemingly imperfect ones, to provide healthcare to our brothers and sisters. One of the consequences of letting fear control us is surrender and inaction. Fear should not be the determining factor when it comes to the question of providing healthcare, or at the minimum access to healthcare for that young woman or for the 45,000 each year who die due to lack of proper care. Surrender and inaction is not what we should seek. Instead, the fear should give way to hope expressed in a step, and thus replacing the fear with a “trust in Christ… Who provides all things.”
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