Is Health Care a Moral Right? Should It Be a Legal Right?

June 17, 2012

Right now, health care is not a legal right for everyone in our country. You can receive health care only if you or someone else pays for it. Currently, from a legal standpoint, health care is a privilege. You can enjoy the privilege of having good health care if you have the money to buy insurance, your employer offers you coverage as a benefit, you’re a beneficiary of a government-subsidized insurance plan (like Medicare or the recently passed health care reform bill), you are taken care of by a health care provider out of the goodness of his or her heart, you go to an emergency room OR you are a prisoner.

Although our Founding Fathers said we are “endowed with unalienable rights, among them, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and although there is a close connection between health and life, this phrase has never been legally interpreted to mean that all Americans have the right to basic health care.

Since 1986, federal law has required hospitals to provide emergency care to those in need of it. In an already existing insurance company mandate, insured people are required to pay for this emergency care in the cost of their own insurance premiums. The Supreme Court has interpreted the constitutional clause “cruel and unusual punishment” to mean that prisoners have the right to health care. We pay for prisoners’ health care, with all of its additional security measures, through taxes. So, under current law an imprisoned brutal child rapist has the right to health care, but the innocent child victim of the crime, whose parents cannot afford insurance, does not. In America, health care is like everything else we buy. If you don’t have or can’t get the money, forget about any guarantees of care except in an emergency.

Personally, I think that health care is a basic moral right. The right to basic health care flows from the sanctity and dignity of human life. Health care is instrumental in safeguarding the right to life. Lack of access to adequate health care undermines this basic right. Some who believe human life begins before birth sometimes act as though it stopped soon after. Advocates of the unborn need to become advocates of the living, too.  

Medicine has advanced light years since the time of our Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson thought the medicine of his time was at best benignly worthless and at worst positively harmful. Our Founding Fathers had no way of knowing how effective, even “miraculous,” medicine would one day become. I like to think that if they could have seen medicine’s future potential to save life, they would have added health care to their non-exhaustive short list of inalienable rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Among means “including but not confined to.”  Does not the right to life include the right to effective means to sustain and save life through means that exist today but did not at the founding of our country?

If it does, then the next sentence in the Declaration of Independence applies to the right of basic health care for all as well as to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” As I read the text, the responsibility for achieving the basic right of basic health care, besides falling on individuals, belongs to the government.

The Declaration of Independence says that life, liberty and happiness are the reasons governmental authority exists. How can you have life if you can’t afford the care essential to life? How can you have liberty if you cannot be free of the chains of debt due to illness? How can you pursue happiness if you’re bed-ridden and you cannot get medical attention because you do not have the money? In my view, health care as an inalienable right is not inconsistent with a reasoned interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.  

My dream: I would like to see the moral right to health care explicitly translated into a legal right through Amendment XXVIII to the Constitution: “The right to basic health care is afforded to every citizen of the United States.”  

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