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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Is Health Care a Right?

In American, we have a "right" to free speech. In fact it says so right in the U.S. Constitution:

1st Amendment - Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Constitution also defines other rights in other sections (such as the right to bear arms, trial by jury, etc.).

So some who view themselves as strict Constitution constructionists could argue that no such federal right to Health Care exits. But the argument about Health Care is broader than simply the reading of a document, and our society in fact couldn't function in this day and age if it's only guide were the constitution. For example, our Founding Fathers never considered the subtleties brought on by things like the Internet and thermonuclear weapons, and so their use has to be guided via an interpretation of the Constitution (Free Speech/Press & National Defense, respectively). While a mental dolt such as myself was able to make something of a connection between two modern things and the Constitution right off the top of my head, the issue of Health Care is a bit tougher.

Yes, I guess the cheap and easy way to approach this would be to tie Health Care of that well worn phrase in the Preamble "...promote the general welfare...", where welfare (as a word) refers to...

1. the good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity, etc., of a person, group, or organization; well-being: to look after a child's welfare; the physical or moral welfare of society.
2. welfare work.
3. financial or other assistance to an individual or family from a city, state, or national government: Thousands of jobless people in this city would starve if it weren't for welfare.
4. (initial capital letter) Informal. a governmental agency that provides funds and aid to people in need, esp. those unable to work.


But again, I don't know that this really answers the question. "Welfare" is just too squishy of a noun, and "promote" isn't a very strong verb.

So all this blabbering on my part and I still don't have an answer yet as to whether or not Health Care is a right. Of course I am not done though, because in my mind the Constitution was never intended to be the country's owner's manual, instead it more like a "guide to getting started". In some ways it's like your parents: they set black and white rules for you (if you steal you will go to jail), they let you go off and do things and if you make a mistake, they provide feedback (the judicial systems role in interpretation of the law). It also helps to define us as a people, which is where I think the answer lies to the Health Care right question.

In defining us as a people, the Constitution has evolved into a document that removes artificial barriers between people: the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 15th Amendment ended racial differences at the polling place, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, the 26th Amendment gave those who are 18 the right to vote. Given all of this, do we want to believe that a barrier should exist for something as basic as access to life-saving care? Is that less important than, say, allowing someone 18 to vote?

So by my estimation, you can almost infer a "right" to Health Care in spirit/sense of the Constitution. But again, that's simply not enough.

To really answer this question, you have to look beyond simply legal documents and view our society as we would like to be viewed by others. A hallmark of the American society are the notions of charity and forgiveness. It was those things (among others) that drove us to lead in the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II. On a more micro level, these notions drive millions of small, individual acts performed by all of us all of the time. We want to be good as a people and we want do good as a people.

Maybe that last sentence nails it for me: "We want to be good as a people and we want do good as a people." As a society we can't be good if we exist knowing that some among us are dying simply for lack of basic medical that is nothing more than a taken-for-granted afterthought by the affluent. We can't do good conscience...if we know that some among us suffer and die because they don't have access to reasonable medical care; simply making the effort would be hypocrisy of the worst kind ("here, let me give you this donation to your foundation, right after I step over the dying child in the gutter").

So Health Care may not be a legal right, but it does seem to me to be a societal obligation. All the wonderful legal rights we enjoy mean far, far less if we chose to live in a society where things like compassion, fairness and charity don't exist. Why bothering telling someone that they have "free speech" when they are busy dying from a treatable illness? What's the point in having a "free press" if the older among us go blind due to treatable cataracts?

One final thought: In my mind, Health Care is a societal obligation, but it is also a personal obligation as well. Some of the left-side of the debate seem to forget this. Having great Health Care means nothing if someone abuses their health. In essence Health Care is a shared obligation between ourselves as how we chose to live healthy lives...and our society as a whole...which has a vested interest in ensuring that everyone has the ability to enjoy the legal rights we enjoy.

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