"Those People": Humanizing the Health Care Debate

By Andrew Wilkes 6-24-2008

Recently I had the privilege of attending a health-care debate at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Inspired by Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters, two groups of five people debated the following resolution: Government-sponsored health care programs should be expanded to cover the uninsured. The group arguing against the aforementioned resolution carried the day. They dismantled their opposition by critiquing Medicaid, Medicare, and the State Children's Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP), and lamenting the financial cost of health care expansion. Beneath the bludgeoning, however, the affirmative group constructed a moving closing argument.

Up until that point, both sides obscured the flesh-and-blood dimension of the debate: 47 million people -- including 9 million children -- currently do not have health care in this country. After raising legitimate concerns about funding and program efficiency, the negative side callously contended that America is a country founded on individualism and that "those people" -- the millions without health care -- simply need to exercise more responsibility in taking care of their bodies. The affirmative position countered these assertions by crafting a poetic refrain centered on "those people." Those people, they intoned, possess a financial stake in America's fiscal policy through paying taxes. Those people, they continued, are mothers and fathers who need the benefit of health care in order to maximize their contributions to America's economy. Those people, they concluded, are included in the portion of our Constitution's preamble, which speaks of promoting "the general welfare."

As we approach the presidential election in November, we can be sure that the health-care debate will intensify. Unfortunately, we can probably be equally sure that "those people" will be dehumanized into statistics, attacked with personal responsibility exhortations that obscure environmental and genetic factors, and otherwise pushed to the periphery of public policy discussions. Hopefully, "those people" can also be sure of something -- that the faith community will join with them in humanizing the health-care debate by infusing the discussion with anecdotes, aspirations, and accounts of our uninsured brothers and sisters.

Andrew Wilkes is a policy and organizing intern for Sojourners. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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