Is health care a "right"?

I ran across an interesting article this morning about using the language of "rights" to talk about health care access. I noticed last week that NPR was doing this in exploring healthcare systems in other developed nations - all of which (except for the US according to NPR's narrative) have decided that health care is a basic human "right."

I wondered how this could be the case. There is something about health care that does not at all seem to be like freedom of speech or freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. It seems further away from the basics of what it is to be a human creature. I felt a nagging suspicion that there was a category mistake being made - perhaps similar to the category mistake that is made when people talk about the "right" of this or that person or group to be ordained in the Church, which misses the point that ordination is a gift from God, not a right that any of us can demand and that true Justice, by the nature of things, must give (for that is what a right is).

So check out these thought-provoking quotes from this post (and read the whole article too!):

Since his [Thomas Jefferson's] day, and certainly preceding it, the historic American understanding of human rights is the exercise of individual freedom, especially in the political realm, for both public and personal good. We have historically never understood our rights as encompassing access to services or commodities...

It does sound all high minded to say that, like rights, health care should be equal for everybody, which I suppose is why clergy are so susceptible to claim it. It's more than obvious that no one in the Congress or the White House believes it, though...

(While the post begins by pointing out that The United Methodist Church's Social Principles call health care a right, it goes on to point out the differently nuanced position of the Roman Catholic Church:)

[T]he Catholic Church does not teach that “health care” as such, without distinction, is a natural right.The “natural right” of health care is the divine bounty of food, water, and air without which all of us quickly die. This bounty comes from God directly. None of us own it, and none of us can morally withhold it from others. The remainder of health care is a political, not a natural, right, because it comes from our human efforts, creativity, and compassion.

Check it out for your pondering pleasure. I should point out that I certainly favor affordable, high-quality, and universally available health care, and as a society we should work to make this a reality. I believe that a society in which that kind of care is available is, so far, a better one than a society in which that is not available, all other things being equal.
But that would also be true for universally available, high-quality, and low-priced homes, but this doesn't therefore mean that home-ownership is a basic human right, only that such a society would be a better one (I think). Likewise, I'm just not so sure that health care is therefore a natural "right" just because it is good for society. Yet we really can promote something as a positive good for society even if we don't believe it falls into the category of a natural human right (because it fails to meet the criteria belonging to that category).

But I would be interested to see a good solid argument that health-care is a right of nature for all humans, if anyone runs across a good one (keep in mind that an argument gives reasons for a position, not merely assertions of that position).

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Blogger Kevin said...

I don't necessarily find health care to be a right, but rather an obligation or sense of accountability that we must uphold. There is a spot reserved in the community for a healer, and his works are appreciated and anticipated to the extent that they are expected, a bit similar to crops from a farmer. No, health care is not an unalienable right, but it shouldn't be withheld if the community has the capability.

5:34 PM, September 07, 2009  
Blogger BruceA said...

Consider this scenario: A family takes their coughing child to the emergency room because they have no insurance. The doctor says, "Give the child Benadryl," and sends the family home without doing a full examination. The child continues coughing, and then dies of pneumonia.

Is the doctor guilty of violating the child's right to life? The doctor did not directly take the child's life. On the other hand, the doctor had the power and the knowledge to give the child a more thorough examination. Can the child's loss of life be attributed to the doctor's neglect? If so, then doesn't a lack of health care equate to deprivation of basic human rights?

Donald Sensing confuses the issue, first by using "pursuit of happiness" as the quintessential right (instead of, say, life or liberty); and second by equating a "right to health care" with "free health care". In no country that has universal health care is it free.

I take it from Sensing's screed that he would argue that the baby in my example should not have the right to adequate health care. I think that's sad.

12:40 AM, September 08, 2009  
Blogger BruceA said...

Clarification: In most cases, it would be the nurse who told the parents to give the child Benadryl; the doctor would not be allowed to see an uninsured patient.

1:16 AM, September 08, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey guys - these are some good and thougthful comments for me to consider,


I think that if the doctor/nurse is a decent human being, they would in your example clearly help the patient in any way that they can - and if we are a decent nation, we will organize our healthcare system in such a way as to make that possible.

But my point is that traditionally the idea of a "right" means that the government or other citizens cannot justly deprive someone of life or of liberty for no good reason (they can do it under certain circumstances, say if I commit a crime).

In this case nobody is depriving the child of his life - it is the illness that will kill him if untreated. Could we push your logic to argue that the healthcare system has committed a crime against our human rights if they do not do all that is medically possible to keep every person who is sick from dying of that illness?

Or do we set some sort of threshold - the government must pay to treat all illnesses as a matter of preserving human rights...as long as it is cheap.

Anyways, my question was that 'rights' are those things that are ours by nature and which we cannot be deprived of, not those things which the government owes to us (if I die in the US, that does not necessarily represent a failure of the government to protect my right to life -- though it may in some circumstances).

I hope that makes sense, I'm trying to illustrate a distinction between two understandings of the word "right."

8:35 AM, September 08, 2009  
Blogger BruceA said...

I see what you're saying about rights; I guess my point is that I'm not sure the traditional definition fits anymore. In the world our Founding Fathers lived in, childhood death was an accepted part of life. Many families buried at least one child. But the advances we've made in medical treatments and technologies gives us the power to change that.

If we are going to use our knowledge wisely, we may have to redefine our understanding of rights. Now that it is possible to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable members of our society, we have no good reason to withhold it.

I realize I'm not presenting an argument for health care as a right in the Jeffersonian sense; on the other hand, I'm not convinced that's the best way to understand rights today.

10:02 PM, September 08, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...


now you have hit what I believe to be the main point of this whole discussion (and really, the question that lingers in the back of my mind sooner or later when I get to thinking about rights) - what is the definition of the word "right" and who defines it (and presumably can redefine it)? What is the foundation of any 'right' at all?

That, I believe, is the question of the Century...

10:26 PM, September 08, 2009  
Blogger Stephen said...

It seems to me that any type of rights discussion can only be limited to the country that you are a citizen of. As far as I know there are no universal guaranteed rights. There might be some commonly understood rights by the majority of the people, but no universally guaranteed rights.

What I find fascinating about the Health Care debates is the fact that the majority of Hospital/Health Care Institutions in this country were founded by churches/religious people because of Jesus. I believe he may have mentioned something about tending the sick. It is only in the 20-21st centuries that Health Care lost some of its original foundations in the era of the dollar. Gone are the days of church/denomination run health care systems we have entered into the day of financial driven health care. Our own denomination sold off its "Methodist" hospitals because they were very very lucrative.

4:47 PM, September 14, 2009  

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