One of the topics that came up in the debate last week was healthcare, with both candidates being asked whether they thought healthcare was a right or a responsibility. McCain kind of blathered on abstractedly for a while, finally settling on “responsibility,” while Obama blathered for a shorter while, and then said “right,” fairly firmly, causing me to cheer.
In the last week, there’s been a lot of discussion (in some circles, anyway) about this question. Personally, I think healthcare is a right, and I thought I might take the time to articulate why I think that. The dictionary has a lot of definitions for “right,” including “that which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc.,” which is where I think healthcare falls.
Everyone is entitled to good healthcare, because everyone is entitled to lead a healthy life. By good healthcare, I mean access to qualified physicians, safe prescription drugs, and appropriately-maintained medical facilities. If a woman has breast cancer, she should be able to receive the best treatment available. If a man has AIDS, he should have access to the care he needs. I’m talking about basic, thorough treatment for conditions which threaten life and well-being. I am not talking about voluntary procedures and drugs (breast augmentation, for example, or Viagra, which I do not think should be covered by a nationalized healthcare system).
My believe that healthcare is a right is part of a larger framework, that people deserve to be healthy and happy. If we say that healthcare is not a right, we say that people don’t have a right to be healthy, and I think you can see how that’s a little absurd. And if we’re going to argue that “children deserve healthcare,” where does that leave adults? (Now, one could argue that children need assistance because they can’t make life choices, which differentiates them from adults, but I personally think that children and adults should be treated equally, which means that if I have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket for medications I need, so should children/their parents.)
Is healthcare a civil rights issue? Well, sometimes. When a black woman can’t get medical treatment because of her color, economic status, or social ranking, yeah, that’s a civil rights issue. When a fat man is denied respectful medical treatment because of his weight, that’s a civil rights issue. Issues can intersect in the big bad world, and nothing exists in a vacuum.
But the right to healthcare doesn’t just benefit people on a personal level. Like other rights, it also benefits society as a whole, making a country stronger and more productive. Nations with nationalized healthcare have healther citizens, much more productive workplaces, and lower healthcare expenditures. When you focus on preventative care and encourage people to seek treatment early, before a situation becomes a problem, it lowers costs, which is good for everyone, and increases the amount of time people can spend working and being productive, which is also good for everyone. Let me say that again: comprehensive national healthcare is cheaper than private systems like ours.
Rights come in a lot of flavors. Liberty, for example, is an oft-touted right here in the States, as is freedom of speech/association. Likewise, a lot of people cite “the right to pursue happiness” as an American value. How can you pursue happiness when you are crippled by a disease you can’t afford to treat? When all of your income is sunk into expensive drugs? When you’re stuck in a job you hate to ensure that your sick partner has health insurance? Healthcare is a fundamental necessity, just like housing, education, and other “external” things, but that doesn’t make it any less of a right.
Until we recognize this, I really don’t see how we can fix the American healthcare system. Because, if you don’t think that healthcare is a right, than nothing’s broken.