Is Health Care a Fundamental Right?


One key argument that proponents of health care reform have used over the last century is that Americans have the "right" to health care. That if a citizen gets sick, he or she has the fundamental right to treatment, whether the individual can pay for it or not. But nowhere is this so-called right spelled out in any government document. 

So is the right to health care valid or is providing health care to all a socialist concept and downright un-American?

The Declaration of Independence says Americans have the "unalienable right" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The Bill of Rights gives us the rights of free speech and to own a gun, among other rights. But it doesn't say "if you get sick, you have the right of access to the best doctors in the land. And don't worry if you can't afford it. We'll provide."

One of the advantages (or drawbacks, depending on your point of view) of living in a true capitalist society is that it's basically every man for himself. If you want something, you go out and earn it. And if your neighbor doesn't have what he wants, well, too bad for him -- he's got to work harder. You are under no obligation to help him out.

But in America, of course, you do help him. Your taxes pay for his unemployment if he's out of work and for his kids' public school education. In addition, built into every health care premium and medical bill you pay is a little something for those who have no insurance -- those who stiff the hospital or doctor because they can't pay for their treatment. They will get paid one way or the other and, indirectly, that money is coming from you.

Most Americans understand these indirect payments and are grudgingly at peace with them. But if they had to pay directly -- say, write a check to their neighbor's doctor -- that would be another matter entirely. "Why should I pay his medical bill? What gives him the right?"

And what gives someone the right to use a doctor or hospital's facilities without paying for them? How is this the same as the right to free speech, for example? Well, it isn't, for the simple reason that your right of free speech does not infringe on anybody else's rights, whereas using those facilities infringes on their owners' right to make a living.

Economics professor Walter E. Williams of George Mason University writes:

True rights, such as those in our Constitution, or those considered to be natural or human rights, exist simultaneously among people. That means exercise of a right by one person does not diminish those held by another. In other words, my rights to speech or travel impose no obligations on another except those of non-interference. If we apply ideas behind rights to health care to my rights to speech or travel, my free speech rights would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with an auditorium, television studio or radio station. My right to travel freely would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with airfare and hotel accommodations.

But is it even fair to compare health care with free speech or travel rights? Is it like comparing apples and oranges? Syndicated columnist John M. Crisp seems to think so:

I still prefer to imagine that generous and happy land where part of the American compact includes access to the same quality of health care everyone else has. Some people call this socialism, but I say we should call it something else. It has nothing to do with your right to have a fancier car than mine, but it does require the recognition that health care is in a different category from all of the other commodities we buy and sell.

In fact, it's not a commodity at all unless we think of it that way in order to subject it to the pressures - and inherent inequities - of the marketplace. Instead, let's call it a basic right of an American life and generate the communal public-spiritedness required to make it happen.

If we are truly a caring, giving society shouldn't we help those who can't help themselves? Despite the struggling economy, aren't we still a very rich country that has a moral obligation to ensure that our own people don't die because they can't afford to see a doctor?


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