Health care is a human right

Many object to the Church’s teaching that health care is a right. They argue there can be no right to something that requires other people’s property or labor.

The problem with this argument is that this inevitably means there can be no right to life either. After all, children do nothing but require the labor and property of their guardians to survive.


“Yes!” they say, “but parents freely choose to have children.” Tell that to NARAL. Arguing that nobody has a right to the property and labor of others undergirds the argument that parents have the right to abort or abandon their children and that children have no rights whatsoever. No Catholic can accept such a claim.

The next objection is that transferring this logic from the right to life to a right to health care means forcing health care workers to be unpaid slaves. This is absurd. For instance, if you deny there is a right to health care but also insist that Americans have a right to bear arms, you probably never say that gun manufacturers must be an unpaid slave class.

That’s because people can have a right to something without it being provided by slaves. We have a right to education, protection under the law, food, water, shelter, utilities and defense, and we pay our teachers, police, lawyers, farmers, water workers, builders, electrical engineers and soldiers to provide these things.

The main argument in American culture against state-mandated universal health care underwritten by taxes is that health care for the poor is charity. Charity cannot be forced. When the state takes your money by force, it robs us of the chance to care for the poor. In the parable, the good Samaritan gave health care to the injured man of his own free will. He did not demand the government take somebody else’s money to do it.

Now don’t get me wrong: “charity” — or more precisely, compassion by individual initiative — is great, and Jesus certainly encourages it. But the core flaw in this argument is that anything beyond individual initiative, and especially anything from a state-funded social safety net, becomes an intrusion on the sphere of individual initiative and, above all, on Christian charity.

Not only is this logic ridiculous, it would not even apply to health care because health care is a corollary of the right to life. Think about it. A child does not have a right to life because of charity. His parents are not doing him a favor by not driving him out to the woods and leaving him there. They are doing him justice, because justice pertains to what is owed. A child is owed his life by his parents by virtue of being human.

The same is true of any human being in danger. The wounded man in the parable was owed his life, and the priest and Levite robbed him by ignoring him. Meanwhile, the Samaritan was not, according to Jesus, a hero or a saint, but merely a neighbor. The priest and Levite sinned by depriving the man of simple justice. The Samaritan bestowed not charity, but simple justice by giving him what we today call “health care.”

Health care thus becomes the role of the state because it is precisely the job of the state to ensure justice.

Every argument against universal health care turns out to be an argument not for charity but for the selfish desires of the supposedly “charitable” person. What is the sense of telling a single mother facing a choice between watching her 4-year-old daughter with leukemia die or living in a cardboard box under the freeway that, “Your need for health care must take a back seat to my need to feel generous”? It’s as if it’s preferable that a single mother beg on the internet for the life of her dying child rather than have a few dimes taken from our paycheck. It’s a problem of empathy. The moment you see things from the perspective of the poor person who cannot afford care, it all snaps into focus.

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Another argument: “But the government can’t do anything right! Private initiative can always handle it better.”

This is untrue. Pope Pius XI said, “If ... private resources do not suffice ... it is the duty of the public authority to supply for the insufficient forces of individual effort.” It was not private citizens who stormed Normandy, built the interstate system, created the internet or defeated polio, smallpox and Ebola. And as the rest of the civilized world beyond the U.S. demonstrates, the state can reasonably manage a universal health care system.

Health care is a right, and it is the Christian duty of the state to ensure that right to all.

It may require conversion on a massive scale for Catholics to own this part of our teaching and put belief into action, but justice demands it.

Mark Shea writes from Washington.