August 11, 2009

Is There a Right to Healthcare?

By Father Thomas Berg *

In a provocative op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal in late July, Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name of British physician Anthony Daniels) argued that there simply is no such thing as a fundamental right to healthcare. "Where does the right to health care come from?" asked Dalrymple. "Did it exist in, say, 250 B.C., or in A.D. 1750? If it did, how was it that our ancestors, who were no less intelligent than we, failed completely to notice it?"

Honest questions. The determination of what does or does not constitute a genuine human right can be a complex philosophical question. Further complicating matters, we live in a time when the language of human rights has become seriously problematic due to hyper-extension of the term. Today, at the drop of a hat, anyone can claim almost anything as a 'right.' Some claims -- like a right to own a fuel efficient automobile -- might be patently silly. But how about something more serious, like a 'right' to own a home? That claim was at the heart of the subprime mortgage debacle that plunged us into a near economic collapse. Or how about a 'right' to have a child?  No takers on that one, at least in the Catholic moral tradition.

So what about a fundamental human right to adequate healthcare? On that count, the U.S. Catholic bishops have been firm believers for decades.  In a 1993 resolution on health care reform titled "A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform" the bishops wrote:

Our approach to health care is shaped by a simple but fundamental principle: every person has a right to adequate health care. This right flows from the sanctity of human life and the dignity that belongs to all human persons, who are made in the image of God.

The statement goes on to explain that the existence of this right was already affirmed in Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris which reads:

Man 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... (n.11).

So, in answer to Dalrymple, yes, the right to health care certainly existed in 250 B.C., and even prior to that, at least in the form of a fundamental right to have one's physical maladies attended to with dignity and adequate care.

Rights are fundamental requirements of justice which people bear toward one another for the procurement of those conditions necessary for every individual to pursue genuine human flourishing.  In this sense, a right to healthcare is anchored in the very good of human life itself, in the prerogative of every human being to protect his or her own existence.

But does it mean people have a fundamental right to a particular standard of healthcare, such as the current American system? And does the government have an obligation to provide for it? Few would deny there are such obligations, but in parsing the intricacies of that question we must avoid confusing the basic right to healthcare with some putative duty of the federal government to provide for it directly. And as our elected leaders sort out this issue, if they are honest students of history, they will acknowledge that, no matter how imperfect, free market democracy -- not government -- has proven to be the best milieu in which to develop America's healthcare system.

So we can certainly support, with our Catholic bishops, broad changes to the health-care system, changes that will, among other things, cover legal immigrants, heavily subsidize insurance for the poor and spread costs fairly. But we cannot fail to demand that lawmakers provide for such requirements of justice without instantiating a broad abortion mandate, facilitating euthanasia, or endangering Americans with socialized medicine.  On those issues, we must be uncompromising. 

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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