As we move into the final stage of negotiations and debate over the health care reform bill, it is very important that we not get caught up in two related, but counter, tendencies, the "pass it at all costs" or the "defeat it at all costs" mentalities that betray the triumph of politics over truth. It is important to step back and ask "Why do we care so much?" and "What are we fighting for?" This act of, you will pardon the expression, values clarification will not necessarily help pass a final bill, but it will help make sure that any final bill that passes is honest. And, this examination of why we care is not just about abortion coverage, although it is certainly about that. It is about why we Catholics are so determined to achieve universal health care access in the first place.
Let me stipulate something about the abortion debate. Most of the pro-choice advocates I know are decent, loving people. They do not relish the prospect of an abortion but they believe that it is not their place to tell anyone else what to do in such a situation as an unwanted pregnancy and many of them remember the days when women died procuring illegal abortions. (The suggestion, invoked by some of the less thoughtful pro-choice advocates, that the Stupak Amendment sends women back to the days of back alley abortion is an insult not only to Cong. Stupak’s amendment but to those women who actually did die procuring illegal abortions.) Pro-choice advocates may be wrong, but they are not evil and their concern for women is genuine albeit misguided in its application.
The twentieth century was, in retrospect, not merely the century of technological and scientific revolutions, the century of the atom and Apollo 11, of open-heart surgery and the computer. That century was also one long assault on human dignity. From the day-in and day-out slaughter of the Western front in World War I, through the mass murders of whole classes of people perpetrated by Stalin and Mao, through the targeting of civilian populations in World War II and beyond, to the final, genocidal crimes in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur, one long assault on human dignity. The apologists for each of these crimes saw benefit in their willingness to ignore the humanity of those they were killing. They were defeating the terrible Hun, building a better future for the proletariat, bringing the war to a faster conclusion, redressing prior wrongs. And, in each of these cases, the language of utility came to dominate, and becloud, the minds of those who defended the crimes.
Abortion is not like Darfur, still less Ukraine circa 1932, or Auschwitz or Hiroshima. But, those who defend abortion do so on the kind of utilitarian grounds that have become dangerously commonplace in the justifications for crimes in the twentieth century. There is a problem, the unwanted pregnancy, and there is a solution, abortion. Human beings, however, are not problems to be solved, even the littlest ones still in the womb, they are humans to be accorded dignity and respect. We Catholics believe this and it is not the kind of belief one tosses aside during a mark-up session on Capitol Hill.
In America today, there is precisely no prospect of overturning Roe V. Wade, and if Roe were overturned, most states would enact its provisions into statutory law the next day. I think Roe was wrongly decided, of course, but it will only be changed at the end of a long, cultural process of creating a Culture of Life, not at the beginning of that process. But, Roe was decided on specific grounds, namely, by invoking the privacy of the woman to make her own choice: Government cannot tell a woman what she can do with her own body. If that is the legal ground upon which the pro-choice argument stands, then it is more than a little bizarre that they now demand not an immunity from government interference but a government subsidy for the procedure. This turns Roe on its head faster than any pro-life argument I can think of.
Catholics believe that human beings are not encased in a prior privacy but are born into the world as social beings, that human identity and dignity is not rooted in our powers of rationality or capacity for independence, but in our profound ability to love and be loved, an ability first made manifest in the relationship between mother and child. That is why some Catholics are so appalled by abortion and sometimes say and do things that also assault human dignity. (I do not mean to excuse the Randall Terry’s of the world by that observation, just to explain it.) The point is that this commitment to human dignity is so basic, so primordial to a Catholic’s sensibility, that it propels us to insist that health care reform not be used as a vehicle for further deadening the conscience of our culture.
This same commitment to human dignity drives us Catholics to support universal health care. There are parts of the current bill before the Senate that could be better, no doubt. But, this is the closest the American polity has ever come to establishing in law the right to health care. There is no other option at the moment, nor in the foreseeable future. If we believe that those who mindlessly rush to extend abortion coverage are denying human dignity, we must also believe that those, mostly Republicans, who are objecting to the reform effort are not defending human dignity either.
As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate the Church’s commitment to human dignity is not dividable. Life issues are social justice issues and social justice issues are life issues. The thing for members of Congress to remember in this final stage of the debate is this: Life is a precious gift from God. Human life demands the protection of our health care system and that protection can not be won by sacrificing unborn human life without denying the very same humane impulse that urges us towards health care reform in the first place.