Health care worthy of the name

President Obama and Congress seem to be quite busy these days trying to reform our health care system. Any reform worth bothering about, though, needs to improve the current situation. “Change we can believe in,” as opposed to just any old change (or change for its own sake), should advance the goals of health care and not betray them.

Recently, the U.S. bishops, through the national bishops conference, wrote to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to express disappointment that the current bills working through Congress, most notably the Senate’s Baucus bill recently approved by the Senate Finance Committee, fail to make the grade.

One issue is abortion. Current federal law, through the Hyde Amendment, refuses to use taxpayer funds to pay for elective abortions. President Obama said on Sept. 9 that “no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions” under the health care reform. As the bishops’ letter dated Oct. 8 says, “No one should be required to pay for or participate in abortions. It is essential that the legislation clearly apply to this new program longstanding and widely supported federal restrictions on abortion funding and mandates, and protections for rights of conscience. No current bill meets this test.”

Indeed, Senator Orrin Hatch proposed amendments in committee to the Baucus bill. The first of these amendments would prohibit federal funds from subsidizing health plans that cover elective abortions, and the second would deny funds to any governmental agency that takes action against a health care entity which does not provide or refer women for abortions. They were both voted down 13-10, on a strictly partisan basis. The Democrats seem to be working in lock step with the administration to defeat meaningful conscience protection for both taxpayers and health care workers.

Turns out that the federal funds will not directly pay for abortions, but they will subsidize private plans that pay for abortions. So when Obama says “no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions,” that depends on your definition of what “will be” will be. I thought that when Bill Clinton left office, we were done with legalistic parsing by Ivy League educated lawyers in high places. But apparently not.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I thought health care was about curing people, or at least caring for them and trying to make them comfortable. Killing does not seem to be part of this goal, however much Planned Parenthood and the Hemlock Society would like us to think it is. (In addition to including abortion, the bills currently under consideration would pressure doctors to limit health care to older patients.) The bishops are right to insist that the plan “exclude mandated coverage for abortion, and incorporate longstanding policies against abortion funding and in favor of conscience rights.” Health care should be worthy of the name.

Whether you’re an unborn child, or a doddering invalid, you need health care just as everyone else does. The recent canonization of St. Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, dedicated to caring for needy elderly, reminds us of that. So too is the canonization of St. Damien of Molokai, who worked in Hawaii with abandoned lepers until he died of leprosy himself. His statue is now in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, in Statuary Hall. I once heard Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta speak at the U.S. Capitol. She said that abortion was the greatest threat to world peace.

Maybe it’s time for Obama to earn his Nobel Peace Prize, as Mother Teresa earned hers. Admittedly, government cannot provide the love that the saints can, but neither should it make health care more expensive and selective, under the guise of reforming it and expanding it.

Health care worthy of the name does not throw anyone under the bus. As the bishops also noted in their letter to Congress, “Reform should make quality health care affordable and accessible to everyone, particularly those who are vulnerable and those who live at or near the poverty level.”

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.