For decades popes and bishops have declared that health care is a basic human right.  After the 2008 election put comprehensive health care reform on the national agenda, the American bishops affirmed this teaching. Their Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development spelled out the need for (1) “a truly universal health policy with respect for human life and dignity”; (2) a reform providing “access for all,” especially the poor and legal immigrants; (3) a reform serving the common good and preserving “pluralism including freedom of conscience” as well as (4) “restraining costs and applying them equitably.”

The bishops’ legitimate concerns about abortion were packed into those phrases about “respect for human life” and “freedom of conscience.” At the same time, the bishops appeared to recognize the complexity of writing a health care law in a nation where abortion was legal and covered by many existing insurance policies.  All they asked, they said, was that funding under the reform be “abortion neutral,” i.e., hew as much as possible to the status quo. 

What ensued, of course, was an extraordinary dance from early 2009 through March 2010 about abortion coverage in what became known as Obamacare.  There was much speculative to-ing and fro-ing about legislative details and what looked like subtle judgment calls. 

In fact, the bishops’ ultimate opposition to the law was probably foreordained.  Years earlier, thanks to Democratic intransigence, the pro-life movement had come to be joined at the hip with the Republican Party. (In 2008, pro-lifers had campaigned against Obama with egregious scare tactics.)  And the bishops had come to be joined at the hip with the pro-life movement.  Once the GOP decided to give no ground to Obama and make him a one-term president, all the dominoes flipped over.  Politics proved thicker than prudence.

That’s just one man’s opinion, of course, and as the cliché goes, let’s not relitigate it. For the bishops, the question is what now?   Concerns about abortion funding and freedom of conscience will be well served by the Republican Congress.  But access to health care itself is up for grabs.  Isn’t this the critical moment for the bishops to restate their call for health care for all? 

Next Friday, at the Trump Inauguration, when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, offers a prayer, perhaps he could include a petition that the nation protect the basic right to health care for all people, born and unborn.  That would be noteworthy—and brave.

Pass it on. 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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