Higher Power: Joining with Pope Francis in the fight for healthcare justice

RoseAnn DeMoroImagine if the tens of millions of nurses in the world start working actively together with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, 16 percent of the planet’s population, on confronting the health consequences of climate change and environmental degradation.

And, jointly pressing all nations – including the most recalcitrant, our own – to accept healthcare as a fundamental human right.

That’s the goal of a petition campaign we’ve started seeking an audience with leaders of Global Nurses United with Pope Francis during his visit to the United States in September. Sign it online at

GNU, of course, is the global federation of 20 unions of nurses in 18 countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe, including NNU, all of whom have been leading voices in their countries in fighting for healthcare justice, from pollution to the climate crisis, to the work for universal, guaranteed healthcare for all.

What precipitates this call for an audience with Pope Francis is the remarkable encyclical on the environment issued by the Vatican in June.  (It can be read in full at

Much of the press attention on the encyclical singled out one flamboyant line: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Sadly, true enough. But there is far more. Pope Francis acknowledged the alarming rise of associated health hazards that nurses, including NNU members, have spoken out about for years.

“Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience,” the Pope wrote. “Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. “There is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general.”

That’s certainly not news to NNU members, who have been in the forefront of nationwide protests against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, petcoke mounds in Chicago and Detroit, toxic spills in Michigan and Arkansas, tar sands oil trains, polluting refineries in Long Beach and Richmond, Calif., and so many other locales.

Additionally, the encyclical noted, “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political, and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

Again, that is in concert with the work of GNU members who have marched across the Golden Gate Bridge, testified in Congressional hearings and before local governments from coast to coast, and been a leading voice on the climate crisis.

Why? We know that climate disruption has been linked to a wide range of health problems associated with the unexpected spread of contagious disease including Ebola, cholera, bird flu, dengue fever, yellow fever, and other epidemics; malnutrition linked to drought and deforestation; bacteria-related food poisoning; and the escalating occurrence of super storms.  

And we have warned that fossil fuel pollution, and other environmentally associated contaminants that infect air, rivers, lakes, oceans, and food supply, have been directly linked to dangerous increases in heart and respiratory disorders, cancer, birth defects, skin and gastro-intestinal illness, and other health factors leading to premature death.

Not to mention how the fossil fuel industry, one of the most powerful economic forces on the planet, uses its clout in Congress and in other countries to block meaningful action on reversing the disastrous effects of climate change and reining in the polluters. Their colossal influence is one reason the Pope can observe that “frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.”

Pope Francis calls “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

Nurses who are on the front lines in taking care of people whose health is directly compromised by these trends should be a part of that dialogue.

And, it also offers an opportunity to continue our GNU and NNU efforts to press every nation, especially ours, to accept and act on the premise that healthcare is a human right, that everyone should have an equal right to healthcare that’s not based on ability to pay, socio-economic status, gender, health behavior, or country or area of residence. In the United States alone, studies have reported a 40 percent increased risk of death for those without health coverage. Lack of health coverage or excessive costs for care result in numerous adverse health outcomes, delays in needed care, and higher societal costs.

“Our common home is falling into serious disrepair,” said the Pope. “Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation” that have put major world regions and people now at high risk, he writes.

Together, the moral authority of the Vatican, as evidenced already by Pope Francis’ groundbreaking encyclical on climate change, and the high public regard for nurses offers an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate international efforts to redress these health emergencies.  Indeed, delay and inaction is no longer an option.