Consideration for human life is bottom line

Posted Aug. 21, 2009, at 6:36 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:42 a.m.

Most Christians would agree that fidelity to religion should take precedence over fidelity to any political affiliation or ideology. This dictum is complicated, however, by the way people view political parties and politicians.

In general, people vote for politicians who claim to share the same priorities. Because we trust the politicians we vote for on the issues that are most important to us, we have a tendency to trust them on all other issues, which we care less about and, as a result, know less about. If, after all, they are right on abortion, they must be right on financial regulation, too. Likewise, we tend to distrust the politicians we don’t vote for across the board. If, after all, they’re wrong on the environment, they must be wrong on education, too.

So we often come to see the party we vote for as unassailable on all matters and the party we don’t vote for as a bunch of demons intent on destroying all that is good in the world.

It should go without saying, though, that nothing is that simple. Indeed, there are two specific problems here as it concerns the relationship between politics and religion. First, if religious institutions and leaders are all too susceptible to the corruption of their ideals for the sake of wealth and power, how much more so are political parties and individual politicians?

Second, there’s the more subtle issue of political ideology often not matching up to religious ideology. Being a Christian does not hinge on voting Republican or Democrat, and being conservative or liberal theologically is not the same thing as being conservative or liberal politically.

All of that is a preamble to this: You may have heard that the central premise of Barack Obama’s government overhaul of the health care system is to institute death panels that are going to kill your grandparents. But shocking as it may be, virtually every part of that sentence ranges from the understandably mistaken to the wildly, outrageously dishonest.

Democrats — who, 40 years ago, passed Medicare, a tremendously popular single-payer, government-run health insurance program that has saved and extended the lives of millions of senior citizens — have not suddenly developed an overwhelming urge to kill old people. The so-called “death panels” are, in fact, optional counseling sessions with doctors that would allow seniors to discuss living wills. Such sessions are already commonplace; the current proposal merely would allow Medicare to cover the cost of the sessions. Until it recently became a political bogeyman, it was supported more vociferously by Republicans than Democrats. It’s not even the sort of claim that should need debunking.

Concerns that reform will amount to a government takeover are more reasonable, but still misplaced. To be sure, plenty of liberals would like a government takeover of the health care system. But for better or, more likely, worse, that’s not what we’re getting right now. Instead, the reforms currently on the table are relatively modest. They are aimed at tightening regulations on private insurers by forcing them to accept all potential customers at reasonable prices regardless of pre-existing conditions; mandating that all citizens purchase health insurance; and providing subsidies on a sliding scale for those citizens unable to afford it on their own.

It will make health insurance more affordable, more secure, and accessible to more Americans. If it passes, it will do a great deal of good, even if it’s not the government takeover that has worked so objectively well in every other industrialized country in the world. Even the public option, which so many have grasped at to support or oppose, is a minor part of the reform and would be available only to a small minority of Americans.

The most reasonable and substantive objection to health insurance reform is that it will be expensive. And it will be expensive. But it will also be deficit-neutral, meaning that the country won’t be borrowing money to pay for it. Much of the plan will be paid for by reprioritizing money that’s already in the system and cutting ineffective programs. The rest most likely will end up being paid for by a small tax increase on the wealthy. The vast majority of Americans will see no difference in their taxes and no obvious difference in their health care. It won’t cost hardly anybody anything.

And that’s a problem, actually. Much of the substantive debate boils down to “What will it cost me?” And Democrats have built their entire plan so that they can answer truthfully, “Nothing.” But it should cost us something, and we should be willing to pay it.

There are 46 million uninsured citizens in America today. They quite simply do not have access to regular medical services and, as a result, receive no preventive care. If they have a serious problem that they cannot ignore, they can go to the emergency room for treatment, but that puts a huge strain on ERs and is more expensive for the system as a whole.

More seriously, the treatment they receive in the ER not uncommonly comes too late. Studies show that at least 20,000 uninsured Americans die of treatable diseases each year. If you want to know what rationing looks like, you need look no farther than America, where we do it in perhaps the most merciless way imaginable: instead of slightly longer waiting lines for everybody, we just let the poorest among us die. And still we ask, “What will it cost us?”

This is the hard moral truth that has most likely led to talking points such as death panels. It doesn’t sound good to argue, “The system works well for me, so screw everybody else.” But if Congress really were going to start arbitrarily killing people, well, opposing that is a good and moral thing. Congress isn’t going to do that, though, and what’s arbitrarily killing people is the system we have now.

So what those who oppose health reform have to ask themselves is whether they are really willing to allow 46 million Americans to remain uninsured; whether they are really willing to let 20,000 Americans die next year and the year after that and the year after that for the sake of lower taxes or ideological purity or political affiliation.

And Christians in particular ought to consider that Jesus, after all, was not a Republican any more than he was a Democrat. He was not a conservative any more than he was a liberal. He was not against big government any more than he was for it. What he was for was caring for the poor and the infirm. He set no bounds on how we should do that. He said only that we should do it. And he never gave any consideration to the cost.

Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached at justin.fowler@myfairpoint.net or on his blog burnstheair.blogspot.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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