During the days of the Roman Empire, people could expect to live a mere 22 to 25 years. In 1900, the world life expectancy rose to 30 years. However, in the twentieth century, there have been major advances made in medicine, nutrition and in health care. As a result, the average life expectancy has risen rather rapidly. Currently, life expectancy in the most developed countries is approaching the range of the mid-80s.
The United States spends more money than any other country on health care. Yet, the life expectancy of Americans is not the highest in the world. The United States ranks 50th out of 224 nations in terms of life expectancy. In the United States, life expectancy peaks at 78 years old. Greeks, Portuguese and Spaniards have a greater life expectancy today.
At a time when life expectancy for the total population is at an all time high, up from 49 years at the turn of the 20th century, the issue of age is enough to make all of us take the time to understand the principles and the practical consequences of any new government health care program. But concern for the elderly is just one of the many, many challenges that face the reform of our health care system.
In the speech to Planned Parenthood activists in July 2007, President Obama pledged to cover abortions in any national health care plan. During his campaign for office, the President expressed his view that reproductive health care is basic health care. “Reproductive health care” is the very word that abortion advocates use when speaking of abortion. In the new plan, will abortion be provided under essential medical services? Will the new health care proposal include abortion? (cf. Penny Starr, Obama Health Care Plan Will Provide Taxpayer-Funded Abortion on Demand, July 15, 2009). No health plan, for which all of us will be paying, should put us in the morally unacceptable position of paying for the destruction of human life. Mandatory coverage of abortion is morally wrong and ethically reprehensible.
Choice has been a hallmark of the American way of life. Will choice be severely limited when the government takes over our health care? Who will have the right to make the decisions? Will our physicians, nurses and hospitals be bound more by government policies than the patient’s condition and moral principles?
There is no denying that our health care should be improved. There are strong and continued cries to cut the costs. There is an urgent need to include the uninsured. The President is campaigning for his new health plan with the promise of extending health benefits to the many uninsured and cutting costs. But at what price will this new plan achieve its goal?
In Catholic social teaching, health care is a human right for all at every stage of life. If our country is to reform our health care, such a reform will only be sound if it is based on ethical principles. Any truly universal health care system must respect the dignity of human life of all persons from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. The freedom of conscience needs to be part of the discussion. So also access to health care for the poor and the legal immigrants. A sound health care system never benefits one group at the expense of another.
Any government that selects who lives and who dies either by mandating abortions under the rubric of reproductive heath care or by denying care to the elderly under the rubric of a wise use of resources has lost its moral compass. Such a government forfeits its right to lead for it is working against the common good.
Our country is now engaged in a most earnest debate that touches the life of every citizen. This is neither a Republican nor a Democratic issue. The underlying questions transcend partisan decisions. They are moral issues. Not one of us will go unaffected by the choices that are made. To rush a new system into place without a full and honest disclosure of all its elements and without a full and honest discussion of all its provisions would simply put politics over principle. In the end, not only the elderly, but all of us will be shortchanged. Today’s much needed reform of our health care system is truly a test of moral leadership.