Respect Life Sunday, this year celebrated on October 4th is a day set aside for Catholics
in the United States to reflect with gratitude on God’s priceless gift of human life. It is also an
occasion to examine how well we, as a nation and individually, are living up to our obligation to
protect the rights of those who, due to age, dependency, poverty or other circumstances, are at
risk of their very lives.
In the current debate over health care reform, it has become evident that a number of
Americans believe that the lives and health of only some people are worth safeguarding, while
other classes of people are viewed as not deserving the same protection. Such an attitude is
deplorable, all the more so in the context of health care. Sanctioning discrimination in the quality
of care given to different groups of people has no place in medicine, and directly contravenes the
ethical norms under which Catholic hospitals and health care providers operate.
Unborn children remain the persons whose lives are most at risk in America: Over one
million children each year die in abortion facilities. The Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 rendered
states powerless to halt this killing. Thankfully Congress and most states acted to prevent public
funding of abortions (with narrowly defined exceptions). Yet despite the opposition of 67% of
Americans to taxpayer-funded abortion, all current health care proposals being considered by
Congress would allow or mandate abortion funding, either through premiums paid into
government programs or out of federal revenues.
It bears repeating: Abortion — the direct, intentional killing of an unborn girl or boy – is not health care. Abortion robs an innocent child of his or her life, and robs mothers of their peace
and happiness. For 25 years, the Project Rachel post-abortion ministry of the Catholic Church
has helped women move beyond their grief and remorse after abortion, helping them find peace
by accepting God’s forgiveness and by forgiving themselves and others involved in the abortion
decision. Abortion funding can only increase the number of dead and grieving.
Unborn children are not the only human beings disfavored under current proposals. Many
people insist that undocumented persons living and working in the United States should not be
allowed in any new system to purchase health-care coverage, and that poor legal immigrants be
denied coverage for the first five years they are in the United States. Do immigrants forfeit their
humanity at the border? How can a just society deny basic health care to those living and
working among us who need medical attention? It cannot and must not.
While most Americans agree that those who cannot afford health insurance should have access to health care, some commentators have gone so far as to suggest offsetting the cost of expanded coverage by curtailing the level of care now given to elderly Americans. Other pundits have suggested that treatment decisions should be based not on the needs of the elderly patient, but on the patient’s allegedly low “quality of life” or the cost-effectiveness of treatment calculated over the patient’s projected lifespan. Such calculations can ignore the inherent dignity of the person needing care, and undermine the therapeutic relationship between health professionals and their patients.
It should not be surprising that the neglect, and even the death, of some people are
offered as a solution to rising health care costs. Population control advocates have long espoused
aborting children in the developing world as a misguided means for reducing poverty.
Some environmentalists now claim that the most efficient way to curb global climate
change is to make “family planning” more widely available in the developing world. They report
that an average of 2.3 pounds per day of exhaled carbon dioxide can be eliminated from the
atmosphere by eliminating one human being. As used by population control advocates, the
innocuous term “family planning” includes abortifacient contraceptives, sterilization, and manual
vacuum aspiration abortions.
Oregon, where health care for low-income patients is rationed by the state, has denied
several patients the costly prescription drugs needed to prolong their lives, while reminding them
that the assisted suicide option is conveniently offered under Oregon’s health plan.
Many scientists justify the manipulation and killing of embryonic human beings in stem
cell research, based on unsubstantiated hopes of finding new cures. Yet the facts increasingly
show this approach to pose risks to patients, and to women who may be exploited to provide
eggs for the research.
Death is not a solution to life’s problems. Only those who are blind to the transcendent
reality and meaning of human life could support killing human beings to mitigate economic,
social or environmental problems.
The antidote to such myopia is to recover an appreciation for the sanctity and dignity of
each unique human being. One could begin by spending a day with a young child. The average
child is a wellspring of joy and giggles, capable of daring leaps of imagination, probing curiosity,
and even reasoned (though sometimes self-centered) appeals for justice. Children delight in God’s creation and love their family unconditionally. God gave every human being these
marvelous aptitudes, and children can help us recover and appreciate them anew.
Since the advent of widespread contraception and abortion, a cultural hostility to children
has grown. They are often depicted as costly encumbrances who interfere with a carefree adult
life. No fewer than six recent books are dedicated to defending the childless-by-choice lifestyle –
for selfish reasons, or to counter “overpopulation,” a thoroughly discredited myth. In fact, if
married couples were to have more children, Medicare and Social Security would not be hurtling
toward bankruptcy. Since 1955, because of fewer children and longer life spans, the number of
workers has declined relative to the number of beneficiaries, from 8.6 to only 3.1 workers paying
benefits to support each beneficiary. Without substantially more young people to enter the work
force as young adults, in 25 years, there will be only 2.1 workers supporting each beneficiary.
Eliminating our young does not solve problems even on pragmatic grounds. It adds to them.
Children, and those who are dependent on us due to disability or age, offer us the opportunity to grow in patience, kindness, and love. They teach us that life is a shared gift, not an encumbrance. At the end of life, we will be judged on love alone. Meanwhile, in the midst of so many challenges to life, we look to "Christ Jesus our hope" (1 Timothy 1:1), who offers to all the world a share in his victory over death.
[Cardinal Rigali chairs the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). ]