Everyone Has the Right to Health Care

The death of any child is tragic. Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver’s death struck me as especially tragic.

The young boy from Maryland didn’t die in a car accident, fall out of a tree or drown in a neighbor’s pool. Nor did this young boy have some type of rare fatal disease. Deamonte’s downfall started with a toothache. His parents took him to the dentist and found out he had a rotten tooth that needed treatment. But unfortunately, without health insurance, his family couldn’t pay for his treatment, so they had to wait.

While little Deamonte waited, the decay of his infected tooth got worse. It ate away at the center of his tooth, and then entered his nerves and blood vessels. From there, bacteria got into his bloodstream. From this, he got a severe brain infection and died. Deamonte had to wait too long.

Just think: This 12-year-old boy’s life could have been saved if his infected tooth had been removed — a medical procedure costing about $100. What a tragedy. We think things like this only happen in places such as Africa, Asia or Latin America. But Deamonte’s death proves they happen here at home in the world’s wealthiest nation.

Cases like this make the ongoing national debate on health coverage urgent. The question over whether to have health care for all evolves primarily around monetary considerations. While dollars and cents matter, money should not decide the fate of this issue.

Before taking a stand for or against the method of health coverage, we need to consider the ethical and moral principles that should inform our judgment and conscience on this debate.

Let us begin with this moral and ethical precis: In every just society, citizens have the right to basic health care. What moral principle supports this claim? From an ethical viewpoint, it’s the principle of the common good.

A society by its very nature should be organized for the good of its citizens, both individually and collectively. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, “It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society” (No. 1910) and that “The dignity of the human person requires the pursuit of the common good” (No. 1926).

The Second Vatican Council defined the common good as, “the sum total of social conditions that allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” One of the conditions that allow people to reach their fulfillment would be basic health care. A closer look at the three essential elements of the common good will shed light on health care as a basic right of every human being.

Respect for the person stands out as the first essential element of the common good. When a society guarantees access to basic health care, it achieves its end as a defender of human dignity. The dignity of the human person represents the ultimate end of society.

When society neglects to protect the dignity of its citizens, it becomes morally impoverished. On this point, the late Pope John Paul II said it well:

“What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom the men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt.”

The social well-being and development of society represents another essential element of the common good. This entails the pursuit of prosperity in the spiritual and material goods of society.

According to the Catechism, a just society “should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on” (No. 1908). Consequently, a just society cannot treat access to health care only as a commodity for those who can afford it.

Peace comprises the last essential element of the common good. The Church understands peace as, “the stability and security of a just order.”

Millions of Americans don’t have any insurance protection at all, and many of these are middle class. This fact undermines the stability and security of our society. Why?

When poor people have to watch their loved ones suffer and die for lack of access to basic health care, this breeds animosity and social unrest. Try to imagine what you would feel if Deamonte had been your son.

This can all be avoided if we have the moral courage to build a more just society by implementing the principles of the common good.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair

is a theology professor at

Mater Ecclesiae College

in Greenville, Rhode Island.