A Prescription for Injustice: Part 4

Who's Helping Whom: The Catholic Church and big pharma

The dignity of life must come before profit, is the official position of The Catholic Church on all matters related to medical care. The Catholic community plays a role in all medical and pharmaceutical-related issues both globally and locally.

Global Position

Internationally, in 2001 the Holy See presented its position paper on drug costs to The World Trade Organization, Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, the official body that oversaw the patent-infringement objections against the production of generic drugs.

In response to the devastation of AIDS, malaria and TB, The Vatican called for the development of methods that would allow the pharmaceutical industry to distribute low cost drugs to the poorest and sickest countries. While the paper acknowledges that the cost of drug research is high, it also states that there is no ethical justification for charging the “highest possible prices in order to attract investors and to build up research, while leaving aside the consideration of fundamental social factors.”

The paper went on to say, “within a free trade system, intellectual property rights constitute an exceptional monopoly regime. Abuses by such monopolies for profit must be curbed, one should recognize each person’s right to health.”

World Day of the Sick

When big pharma dropped its opposition to generic ARV treatments for use in Sub-Saharan Africa, they were singled for praise by Pope John Paul II in a letter written in celebration of the UN World Day of the Sick in February 2005 in Cameroon, Africa.

“Earnest applause goes to the pharmaceutical industries engaged in keeping low the costs of medicines helpful in the treatment of AIDS,” the late Pope wrote. “Of course, financial resources are necessary for scientific research in the health-care sector and further resources are required to put the newly discovered drugs on the market, but in the face of emergencies such as AIDS, the preservation of human life must come before any other criterion.”

Whatever theories the pharmaceutical industry might hold dear, the industry has no choice but to pay attention to the Catholic response to its ethics. Catholic charities are among big pharma’s best customers.

The Vatican has been an effective voice in the battle for prescription drug reform. Whatever capitalistic theories the pharmaceutical industry might hold dear, the industry has no choice but to pay attention to the Catholic response to its ethics. Catholic charities are among big pharma’s best customers. In 2005 the Catholic Medical Missions Board alone sent pharmaceuticals and medical supplies totaling $175 million to projects in 51 countries.

Local Assistance

In the US, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of support for healthcare reform and supporting the right to health for the uninsured, the elderly, the poor and immigrants. This tradition extends to its active role in helping these people access medications they could not otherwise afford.

There are a number of resources available for those facing financial drug-access issues. It’s important to remember, though, that people in the middle of a health crisis, may not have the time or emotional resources to find out exactly where that assistance is, how to apply for it or even whom to ask about it.

Sharing an awareness of these services could be the first step in helping a sick friend start essential, expensive treatment that they could not otherwise afford.

American Catholic organizations offer explanations of eligibility criteria, application processes and references to governments and community services for those in need of assistance in affording prescription drugs.

The Healing Ministry of Catholic Health Care, in particular, offers services to uninsured people and can direct those in need of financial help to cover prescriptions (and people seeking information on their behalf) to appropriate community organizations.

Assistance & Activism Resources:

Catholic Health Care


Catholic Charities USA


The National Black Catholic Congress