Health Care is a Human Right

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), article 25 paragraph 1 says: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

The United Nations ratified the UDHR December 10, 1948. It came into being at a moment in history when the world had just witnessed some of the most horrendous acts that humankind has ever perpetrated against itself-the Holocaust and the introduction of nuclear weapons into warfare. World leaders, Eleanor Roosevelt among them, hoped that if humankind could agree to some basic principles, that humanity could spare itself such deep global trauma in the future.

The UDHR recognizes "the inherent dignity" of every human person. It recognizes that respect for certain foundational inalienable rights and for basic human needs is necessary to establish peace on the planet. It does not carry the weight of law, but it serves as "a common standard of achievement." It is a goal toward which we ought to strive.

A declaration of human rights has no meaning unless people know it exists and are willing to work toward making the rights it declares a reality within their own country. We in the United States like to think of our country as the leader of the free world. We measure this through the power of our economy and of our military, through the influence of our educational and cultural institutions.

However, if we use the quality of our health-care system and the number of people who are not covered by health insurance as a measure, the United States is not a leader. The American exceptionalism that many in this country speak about with pride is a negative exceptionalism. We are exceptional for being one of the richest nations in the world that does not provide an adequate health-care system for its citizens. (See The Myth of American Exceptionalism by Godfrey Hodgson.)

Happily, we have come to the place in the national discourse where almost no one holds the position that we ought to do nothing to improve health care. The questions are: What ought those changes be? How do we pay for the changes?

The simple truth is that we will have to pay more taxes. The wealthiest of us ought to pay more, and all of us should pay taxes on sugar-filled drinks and junk food. Health care is a right, but it, as all rights, comes with responsibilities. We are all responsible for eating right and getting exercise and rest. We ought to practice spiritual disciplines that help relieve stress and learn nonviolent conflict resolution. Violence is a health care issue. Healthier individuals will make for a healthier society.

When we all are willing to do our part, the United States can be the leader of the world measured in its ability to bring health and wholeness to humankind. Let us fast and pray for our leaders, all our leaders, so that they can craft legislation that will give heath care to all Americans.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

To learn more about health-care reform, click here to visit Sojourners' Health-Care Resources Web page.

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