In his address to Congress on September 9, President Barack Obama recommended his proposed healthcare reform by citing a letter he had received from the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, in which the senator wrote, "What we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country." Citing Senator Kennedy as an authority on social justice and the nation's character may not have been a winning gambit for all of the president's audience, but he was right to acknowledge that the health-care debate does entail important moral issues.
If reforming health care along the lines proposed by many Democrats results in the rationing and indeed degradation of care, is there any moral justification for such reform? As the Catholic Medical Association (CMA) recently warned, "Giving the federal government the power, and primary responsibility, to contain medical expenditures could threaten the provision of medical care to the most vulnerable, the elderly and the chronically ill." "Misguided legislation," the CMA argued, could only worsen health care.
One New Englander who would have appreciated this was Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose writings are full of cautionary tales about well-meaning reformers. "The Birth-Mark" is perhaps the most brilliant. The tale's visionary hero, intolerant of human imperfection, resolves to remove a birthmark from his wife's face and, in the process, kills her.
For Henry James, Hawthorne "combined . . . the spontaneity of imagination with a haunting care for moral problems. Man's conscience was his theme . . . ." Hawthorne's works corroborate James's point: The Blithedale Romance pokes witty fun at the Transcendentalist conscience that founded the utopian Brook Farm community; The Scarlet Letter anatomizes the obsessive Puritan conscience; The House of the Seven Gables looks at how conscience often operates in families, grappling with the ghosts of ancestral guilt.
But it was in Hawthorne's own family that his moral preoccupations found their full flowering, especially in the life of his daughter Rose, the legacy of whose work exposes grave flaws in the president's proposed overhaul of health care.
Rose Hawthorne (1851-1926) was born in Lennox, Massachusetts, the third and youngest daughter of Hawthorne and his discriminating wife, Sophia Peabody, who once exclaimed: "I hate transcendentalism, because it is full of immoderate dicta which would disorganize society" -- not a sentiment that would endear her to the immoderate social engineers surrounding our current president.
The love that Rose received from her parents helped sustain her throughout her difficult adulthood. Shortly before her marriage collapsed (her husband was an incorrigible alcoholic), she astounded her mostly Unitarian friends and relations by converting to Roman Catholicism. Once embarked on her new life, she dedicated herself to providing care to the cancerous poor, who, at the time, were barred from the city's hospitals and left to rot on Blackwell's Island. After the death of her husband, she founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne to advance her sacramental work.
Rose's friend Emma Lazarus, whose lines adorn the Statue of Liberty -- "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . ." -- and who died herself of cancer at the age of 38, introduced her to the needs of the poor by sharing with her the work she was doing on behalf of indigent Jews in New York. After reading a news story about pogroms in Russia, Lazarus told Rose: "I forgot Emerson. I forgot everything except that my people were in need of help." Here was a woman after Rose's own heart.
To fund the homes she set up for her patients on the Lower East Side and, later, in Hawthorne, New York, Rose published appeals in the New York Times, one of which ran: "Let the poor, the patient, the destitute and the hopeless receive from our compassion what we would give to our own families, if we were really generous to them."
Of all the many responses she received, one stood out:If there is an unassailably good cause in the world, it is this one undertaken by the Dominican Sisters, of housing, nourishing and nursing the most pathetically unfortunate of all the afflicted among us -- men and women sentenced to a painful and lingering death by incurable disease . . . . I am glad in the prosperous issue of your work, and glad to know that this prosperity will continue, and be permanent -- a thing which I do know, for that endowment is banked where it cannot fail until pity fails in the hearts of men, and that will never be.Throughout his life, Mark Twain was one of Rose's staunchest supporters.
The loving care that the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne continue to extend to their patients could not be in starker contrast to the sort of cheese-paring bureaucratic care that the president and his allies recommend in their proposals. For example, the Congressional Budget Office recently informed Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus that his plan to cut $123 billion from Medicare Advantage -- the program that provides one-fourth of seniors their private health insurance -- would cause some 2.7 million seniors to lose their coverage altogether.
Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the president's health czar, looks askance at the very notion of extending end-of-life care. "Covering services provided to individuals who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens . . . should not be guaranteed," Dr. Emanuel wrote in a Hastings Center Report. "An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia."
In sentiments such as these, Rose Hawthorne would have seen a return to the mentality that set up the death warrens of Blackwell's Island. It was to reform that mentality that she established her own homes, which are still going strong today throughout the United States and (President Obama, take note) Kenya. One reason for their continued success is the munificence of donors like Twain; but another and perhaps even greater reason is their inherent goodness, for, to quote Pope John Paul II, they are "not merely institutions where care is provided for the sick or the dying," but "places where suffering, pain and death are acknowledged and understood in their human and specifically Christian meaning."
For their compassionate vision of health care, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne can cite the authority of Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote in his first encyclical:Love -- caritas -- will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person -- every person -- needs: namely, loving personal concern.These insights, which describe so accurately the "service of love" for which the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne were founded, should also guide those who wish to bring about truly humane health-care reform.
Edward Short is finishing a book on Cardinal Newman and his contemporaries, which will be published by Continuum.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Rose Hawthorne and a More Humane Vision of Health Care
This article appeared at insidecatholic.com and is well worth a read.