When it comes to health, the "least of our brethren" are the 47 million Americans without health insurance. Studies show the lack of insurance results in the unnecessary deaths of 45,000 Americans each year.
The health care reform legislation in Washington doesn't completely solve that problem, but it takes a tremendous step in the right direction. The new law provides insurance coverage for more than 30 million Americans - people who will finally have access to prenatal care, cancer therapies and preventive care. It will save lives.
That's why the division within the American Catholic Church on this measure is so troubling. The Conference of Catholic Bishops and their president, Cardinal Francis George, officially oppose the legislation, while the Catholic Health Association - hospitals that are the largest provider of nongovernmental health care in the United States - supports it.
When the health reform legislation is measured against the goals of the bishops conference, it meets their test in most areas:
• "Access for all" and "comprehensive benefits" - 95% of Americans will be covered
• "Concern for the poor" - Medicaid coverage will be expanded
• "Respect for life" - federal funding for elective abortions will be prohibited
• "Respect for religious values" - those choosing not to provide abortion services will be protected
• "Equitable financing" - bill is paid for and won't add to our deficit; only those earning over $200,000 annually will pay additional taxes
The bishops refuse to support this measure, even after the president agreed to issue and enforce an executive order forbidding federal funds from being used for elective abortions in health plans and community health centers.
Their position is in sharp contrast to that of thousands of Catholic nuns who are often on the front line providing health services to pregnant women, children and the poor.
The president of the Catholic Health Association, Sister Carol Keehan, endorsed this legislation calling it "an historic opportunity to make great improvements in the lives of so many Americans." While stating her own commitment to life issues, she acknowledges that safeguards are built into the legislation to ensure no federal dollars are used for abortion services. She also notes the new law provides $250 million for counseling, job training and assistance for pregnant women.
After learning the bishops opposed the legislation to provide the coverage and cancer therapies she needs, an uninsured woman in Chicago asked me: "What about my right to life?"
• Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Springfield, serves as the Senate's assistant majority leader.