The Common Good

Remembering Elizabeth Edwards, Advocate for Health Reform

101208-elizabethedwards-cover[Editors' note: Today we remember Elizabeth Edwards who was an outspoken advocate for health-care reform and used her position of influence to speak out for those who could not get the care they needed. Our thoughts and prayers are with her friends and family. Below is a piece she wrote for the August 2008 issue of Sojourners magazine.]

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Last March, after I gave a speech in downtown Cleveland, a woman, pressed and dignified in a business suit, leaned over and whispered in my ear. "My name is Sheila, and I am afraid," she said, her face softening. "I am afraid for myself and for my children. I have a lump in my breast, but I cannot get it checked because I have no insurance."

She must have been working, for few of us would dress in a suit and stockings voluntarily, and she must have been terrified. A mother thinking of her children, and terrified. "Stay right here," I said, pressing her arm and going to search for relief for her.

But in the minutes it took to find someone who might be in a position to help a working mother find the health care she needed, she was gone. Perhaps her lunch hour was over. Perhaps she was already late getting back to work. Or perhaps she thought that she had not, in fact, whispered in the right person's ear.

That moment in Cleveland was Sheila's insurance policy. That was what stood between attention to a lump that might be cancer and the inattention that could lead to her death. I am terrified for her, and if by some divine providence she reads this piece, I ask her to please find me again. I want to help Sheila and the millions -- yes, millions -- whose stories are similar to hers. There are 47 million Americans who lack health insurance: That's nearly one in every seven Americans, who, if a health crisis strikes, will need to hope for a miracle.

Sheila's story is a parable of a health-care system in crisis. Most intelligent observers (and I say "most" advisedly) agree on that. What they don't agree on is where we should go from here.

In the landscape of the health-care debate, two very different paths lie in front of us. Which one we choose will speak volumes about who we are as a nation and what values we hold dear. Our choice will determine what we say to women like Sheila -- whether we say, "We are with you. Your challenge is our challenge too, and we will help you face it," or simply shrug and say, "Sorry, you're on your own." That's the moral choice we face today and which path we walk down is up to us.

This decision tends to get obscured by the feel-good language that certain politicians use when they talk about health care. Too often, the fuzzy language of compassion and inclusiveness masks harsh policies that would make our current health-care crisis worse. In this political season, it's critical that we understand what politicians are really saying about health care, so that we can make an informed choice.

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