Health Care: Human Right, Civil Right, Privilege, or Market Commodity

What is health care?

Is it a human right, civil right, privilege or market commodity? Is it a public good, moral obligation, government obligation, job benefit, or individual responsibility? Ought it be subject to the profit motive and or to government regulation? Is it all, some, or none of the above?

We have not reached consensus in this country on what health care is. What are our national goals concerning the health of the nation and its people? Can we have a healthy body politic without healthy citizens? Can we have healthy citizens without a healthy body politic? Unless we are clear about our goals, we cannot reach them. Unless we have a clear vision of what we want to create, we cannot craft it.

Some of us argue for universal health care because we understand it as a human right. For us it is a justice due to every human being by virtue of her humanity. It is a question of respect for the human dignity of every individual. For those of us who are believers, it is a matter of respect for the image of God that is created into humankind.

That health care is a human right is the consensus of the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that medical care is a human right. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health."

The Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, "Protocol of San Salvador" says that states ought to "recognize health as a public good." (The United States is not a signatory to this protocol.) We ought to decide if health is a public good, and if it is, there is an obligation of government to provide it. This is an obligation of our national government.

During the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover opposed federal unemployment relief. He thought voluntary agencies, as well as local and state governments, should carry that load. Hoover thought federal unemployment assistance would lead to "socialism and collectivism."

We hear the same fears today regarding health care. We hear people say that a public option would lead to a government takeover of the health-care system and to socialized medicine. They say this as if health care would automatically be worse if the federal government become involved. However, all the fears of limited choice of doctors, rationing of care, and waits for doctors appointments and of procedures have already come true under the present system. Under the present system, thousands of people declare bankruptcy each year because of medical expenses and some 20,000 die of treatable illnesses.

Further, we think that the government cannot run anything well. Witness public schools, public transportation, and public housing. We fail to consider that our government is OUR government. In a representative democracy, we get the leaders we choose. We get the government we deserve. We get the schools, transportation, housing, banking system, and health-care system that we deserve.

We the people of the United States deserve better than we have now. It is our responsibility to insist that our lawmakers work together to develop a health-care system that will give universal access to the best physical and mental health care available

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.

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