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Health care: Justice as well as economics at stake, Catholics insist

(ran NT LT CT COM editions)

Health care is a moral good, not simply a commodity that can be left in the hands of the free market economy, a leading Roman Catholic social theorist told the Catholic Health Association Monday.

"The market may guarantee efficiency but by itself will never guarantee justice," said the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir during the 78th annual assembly of the Catholic Health Association in New Orleans.

While government has a role to play in assuring health care to all, any federal health care proposal that includes abortion in its coverage, said Hehir, will immediately face a significant obstacle among those who oppose easy access to abortion.

Hehir, now a professor at Harvard Divinity School, has been a longtime social policy adviser to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He told the association that the economic free market "must be framed in a wider set of principles" so that "certain goods the market does not know how to value, such as health care, are given their proper moral status."

The debate over health care has moved from deciding whether health care is a right to determining whose obligation it is fulfill the right.

"I submit there is a kind of sliding scale of responsibility," Hehir said in the keynote address at the meeting, "and I would begin in the first instance with the health care professions.

"The Catholic argument is systemic, but it is not statist. It does not automatically say the govern-

ment has the sole responsibility to meet this right. It might say in the end the government has ultimate responsibility."

He said that, although the health care professions are "by definition tied to this moral good. It is clear that the professions by themselves cannot meet this right. You cannot have any viable plan without significant involvement of the state."

Government, he said, has a "positive moral responsibility, especially to the vulnerable, but when you say the issue is an issue of the common good as a whole it (the state) has responsibility to the common good as a whole."

Hehir said Catholic health care providers will face additional tangles over bioethics issues, including euthanasia and abortion.

"We're going to face an immediate test on the social justice and bioethical questions if the abortion issue is included in the benefits package" to be proposed in President Clinton's health reform plan, he said.

"It would be a mistake from the public policy side for those formulating the health care plan in the administration to take the broadest social policy initiative we've had in 40 years and to join it with the most controversial policy issue we've had in 20 years," Hehir said. "If that happens, I think inevitably the first response of a community like ours will have to be to oppose abortion as included in the benefits package.

"If we fail in that, then we're going to have to pursue an argument knowing that there are two moral goods at stake: how to protect human life and how to preserve and foster human life through health care."