The Right to Healthcare

Last week I responded to a post on Mackerel Snapper regarding the idea that healthcare is a right and is fundamental to the pro-life movement, that without, essentially turns pro-lifers into pro-birthers. My response was this:

Here is the problem with this. This implies that people have a right to healthcare at someone else’s expense. The cold hard truth is that some things are incredibly expensive to get care for due to a number of factors including specific skill sets, development of technology, etc. If I have an absolute right to those things no matter my ability to pay it means that someone somewhere has no right whatsoever to freely determine what they will do with their own productive property (capital, time, talent, etc.) I can perhaps say no, but someone down the line MUST say yes if someone has an absolute right regardless of their ability to compensate the person or people serving them. This is really the same line of thinking that others use to force others to violate their consciences. It is a mentality that I’m owed a certain quality of life and someone else must give it to me no matter what.

There is an explicit moral obligation to not kill others. However, there is not an explicit moral obligation in Scripture, or otherwise, that healthcare coverage is a universal right. We certainly have an obligation as followers of Christ to do what we can to help others and to comfort the afflicted as we are able but that is a far cry from absolute universal healthcare coverage.

Surprisingly, my comment became the center of a follow-up post, entitled, Missing the Point of Catholic Social Justice. I was both surprised and flattered that someone had actually taken the time to read my thoughts, and then respond.

Every time I write something concerning Catholic Social Justice, I am always met with rebuttals that, for lack of better phrasing, super duper miss the point…Yet, in response, a reader posted this all-too-common spiel. [insert my comment from above].

I will admit that, regarding application, the reader presents legitimate concerns. But that’s all they are: concerns. They are factors. They don’t do anything to change the original premise.

So many of us hold the belief that  justice is somehow relative to our own personal situation. But it’s not. Justice is objective. It is static. It doesn’t care about material obstacles. It doesn’t care whether *we* think it’s fair or not. And it certainly has no problem demanding sacrifice.

It’s a great response, but Mackerel Snapper, I believe, also misses the point of Catholic social justice, and I think that there are several blind spots in a statement that flat-out says “healthcare is a right” and stops it right there.

The first problem is that, despite the staticity and objectivity relating to justice, the application of the principle are highly subjective, and always will be. While justice might not care about material obstacles, we live in a material world, and any application of justice must take those material obstacles into account, and very well may be hindered due to material limitations. To pretend that they don’t exist, and that justice demands that we meet its standards regardless of the material obstacles that exist is to not live within reality. There, is of course, the fact, too, that medicine is not itself a static field, and is always evolving, and does not evolve across the globe at the same speed. What is possible for one person in a particular place and time is not possible for a second person at a different place or time. So to say that a person is entitled to healthcare is in itself subjective and warrants further discussion due to the inherent disparity that exists in a non-static universe.

The second problem is related to the first, and it comes from the very subjective nature of defining what is healthcare, and which parts fall under the category of that fundamental right? Are life-saving and quality-of-life procedures the same? Are all quality-life-procedures in themselves equal? Are a blood transfusion and dental braces the same?  Is the providing of toothpaste and dental floss a fundamental right under this broad right to healthcare?

These may seem like ludicrous examples, but they highlight the necessity of having a legitimate discussion, rather than making broad statements. If only, though, these were the only issues.

There is of course, the concern of personal freedom. Unlike the rights to speech or self-defense, or worship, which don’t require the participation of anyone else, the right to healthcare, does. It requires that others serve you, and if it is a fundamental human right, it stands to reason, that humanity has an obligation to provide enough doctors and physicians in order to provide healthcare to all of our brothers and sisters. So what if, there is a shortage of doctors, or a workload that is so heavy that patients do not truly get the adequate care and attention that they need? In order to meet this human right, people must be drafted into the workforce, regardless of whether they want to become doctors or not. “Oh come on!” you say. “You’re being absolutely ridiculous.” No, I’m not. If healthcare is an absolute right, then, as Mackerel contends, no material obstacle should stand in the way. If someone has the brain power to become a doctor, they have an obligation to justice, even if that is not what they want to do with their lives. Don’t think that there has never been a state that did not allow its subjects the freedom to choose a profession they enjoy, or that such a state doesn’t currently exist in the world today, and will not at some point exist in the future.

Mackerel finishes with a quote from Pope Paul VI from Populorum Progressio:

In short, “as the Fathers of the Church and other eminent theologians tell us, the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good.” When “private gain and basic community needs conflict with one another,” it is for the public authorities “to seek a solution to these questions, with the active involvement of individual citizens and social groups.”

Contrary to what the original post implies, this is not a statement of some static right to healthcare, and neither is what the Catechism has to say on the topic:

Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good. Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.

-Catechism 2288

Rather than stating that health care is a right, it simply states that society must help in the attainment of health care. When I read that it conjunction with Pope Paul VI, it would seem to me that the issue does not come down to a static demand of justice, but rather, a conversation within society about how to balance personal rights and responsibilities of all of its citizens towards each other, and to determine what the minimum living conditions are for its citizens in its unique place and time in human history.

I am not anti-healthcare, or anti-justice, but the issue is, like most things Catholic, far more nuanced than Mackerel Snapper seems to express.


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