Monday, December 7, 2009

Is health insurance a right?

In addition to being thankful, I spent a portion of my Thanksgiving weekend discussing health care reform with members of my family. At one point, one of my relatives got to the nut of the discussion when he said, " I guess it depends on whether you think health care is a right or not. I think people have a right to health care."

I agree that the differences in the health care debate boils down to those who believe health insurance is a basic human right and those who do not. Understandably, those who believe it is a right believe we must do whatever is necessary to ensure that everyone has it. We certainly do not tolerate denying someone freedom of expression. However, if it is simply something good that cannot be guaranteed our expectations change.
There is a long list of rights guaranteed by our constitution. It includes freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to assemble, the right to bear arms, the right to a speedy trial, the right to a trial by a jury of your peers, the right to be treated equally under the law, and the right to be free from illegal search and seizure.

Still, there is an even longer list of things that I want my fellow man to have and enjoy that I do not want the government to guarantee for anyone. That list includes a great job, life-long marriages, good health, financial stability, regular exercise, two parents that love you, the chance to travel overseas, talent, children that make meaningful contributions to the world, home ownership, a family that gets along, a road-trip across America, and real friendship. All of these are desirable and the impact of their absence ranges from inconsequential to devastating.

But the simple fact that not having something is unfortunate does not necessarily give you a right to have it.

Basic human rights must apply equally to everyone regardless of intelligence, wealth, citizenship, race, creed, color, age, religion, or historic period. The right to life and the presumption of innocense can be understood and applied in every culture and at all times. On the other hand, health insurance has not existed for most of human history. For billions of people, the fact that they have no health insurance or regular health care is not a social injustice, it is a practical impossibility.

I cannot help but wonder if we would still claim a right to health care if an economic, natural, or nuclear tragedy destroyed our ability to administer the miraculous medical care we currently enjoy. Certainly we would still believe in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is tragic when a family faces bankruptcy because of an illness. It is also tragic when a child is asked whether they would rather live with their mom or their dad. The government cannot prevent all tragedy. History has shown us that efforts to relieve human suffering through government management is often a cure worse than the disease.

Our health care system has tremendous strengths and some glaring deficiencies. It can and should be improved. But as we do so, let us avoid losing our heads in hyperbole. Rather than referring to medical insurance as a basic human right, we can manage expectations by recognizing how fortunate we are to even be having this debate.


  1. But healthcare is a right. In the same way that we, as citizens, have the right to be protected by our country, we also have the right to healthcare. Just because many people do not have healthcare doesn't mean it is not a right. Many people don't have equality, yet it is still an undeniable basic human right.

  2. But why? The point is that there are lots of things that are helpful and perhaps even necessary for a happy and healthy life that aren't guaranteed by the government. Why is health care a right when housing, transportation, and a good job aren't?