Health care is a right – says so right there in the Constitution

by on September 24, 2009 · 2 comments

in Civil Rights, Health, Media

Arthur Salm

Arthur Salm is an SDNN columnist.

Editor: Even though this column by SDNN’s Arthur Salm was published a month ago, we decided to re-post it as the Senate discusses health care reform right now.

by Arthur Salm / SDNN / originally posted August 24, 2009

“I think health care is a privilege. I wouldn’t call it a right.” – Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.)

Just a few hundred years ago, just about everywhere, slavery was an accepted part of life, like families and work and the sun coming up in the morning and the Padres trading away franchise players. Not even slaves were anti-slavery: Any of them fortunate enough to be freed, and then to become prosperous, would just naturally get himself a slave or two or ten. That was the way people were. That was the way people thought.


Two hundred years ago, nearly half a century after this country’s founding, education was for the relatively few children whose families could afford to send them to private schools — which were the only schools. It certainly wasn’t the government’s business to educate its citizens. That was the way we were. That was the way Americans thought.

Today, the acceptance of slavery is all but unimaginable. Literally: unimaginable. So radically have our values shifted that it’s all but impossible to empathize with a slaveholder, to put one’s self into his mindframe and say, “All right, I see that. I may not agree with it, but I can kind of understand where he’s coming from.” It’s beyond our ken.

Likewise the notion that we bear no responsibility, as a society, to educate our children. Self interest plays a part, of course — a modern technological civilization requires an educated citizenry — but it goes further and deeper than that. We now agree that spending public treasure on sending kids to school is a moral imperative. Every child, we are convinced — we know — deserves an education.

So our values change, and change (from our point of view, at least) for the better. A lot of things people stood by and fought for, or, more telling, didn’t think about but simply accepted as given, are now alien concepts, consigned to the “Omigod-people-used-to-be-so-cruel” corner of history’s overflowing dustbin.

One of the values now undergoing transition involves health care. Sen. Jim DeMint (R – South Carolina), quoted above, maintains that it’s a privilege. That is to say, no one deserves it; it has to be earned, or, more likely, bestowed upon you because your family has the means to do so. Or, if you’re lucky enough to ping on the radar of a (privately run) charity, maybe an occasional checkup and some prescription-drug handouts will come your way.

People in every other western industrial nation don’t see it like that. They have decided that all their citizens deserve health care; it has become, in their view, a right. It didn’t used to be, but it is now. Values, remember, change.

We Americans haven’t come that far yet, but we’re en route — and we even have the backing of the Founders on this one. The language is there, and has always been there, but it is coming to mean something different, something more, something better. Take this from the Preamble to the Constitution (my italics):

… establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare

And this, from the Declaration of Independence (again, my italics):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In this day and in this age, the government’s — that is to say, our — charge to promote the general welfare, coupled with every man’s (and woman’s; another value change) right simply to live, more than implies a right to health care – it demands a right to health care. Throw in the pursuit of happiness as a kicker — can’t be happy if you’re sick as a dog, or dead as one — and it’s something we shouldn’t even be talking or thinking about; it’s something we should know. I deserve good health care, you deserve it, your kids deserve it, people you don’t know and never will know deserve it. Everyone deserves it.

That means good care, real care, not a last-minute, desperate trip to the ER. Brian Johnston, chief of emergency services at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles, wrote in the L.A. Times about what he sees there:

… a 47-year-old laborer, with untreated high blood pressure, dying from a cerebral hemorrhage. A woman in her 40s complaining of feeling ‘lousy,’ unaware that her blood pressure is extremely high and that her kidneys are destroyed. An elderly widow is brought in severely dehydrated and comatose, with a blood sugar level over 800. Medi-Cal had switched her over to a ’share of cost’ program, which forced her to choose between paying her rent or taking her medicine. She’d chosen to pay the rent.

Senator DeMint and others opposing universal national health care may be okay with what happened to these people. Health care, they believe, is a privilege; it’s not available to everyone; that’s just the way it goes.

But the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution, as read and understood through modern sensibilities, say otherwise.  Those ER patients’ rights as Americans were violated. Our rights are being violated. May we soon hold these truths to be self-evident.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie September 24, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Health care is a right. I’ve believed that since I worked at the Beach Area Community Clinic in 1974 in Mission Beach. It was a clinic that operated on that principle. We had a “Patient’s Bill of Rights” nailed to the wall in the waiting room. The clinic was begun in 1971 as San Diego’s first Free Clinic. Patients were asked to donate $2 if they could. If they couldn’t they were treated just the same.

I wanted to reprint this article from SDNN because this principle – the principle that health care is a right – has gotten lost in the “debate” about health care reform.

When she was still living, I tried to explain this concept to my mother – an army officer’s wife and life-long Republican (altho even she voted for Clinton his first go-around). I would use her and my access to health care as military dependents as the model for everyone. It wasn’t always great but it was there and we didn’t have to sweat medical insurance bills, drug costs, etc. (I once had to wait 4 hours before my broken arm was re-set at SD’s Navy Hospital.) “Everybody should have the same health care as we do, mom.” But, she thought, the military is different. We deserved it. So, a mind sea change is definitely in order.

Health care is a right.


Brian Athey October 7, 2009 at 11:53 pm

I quite agree with your position.
I think it is only a matter of time before this is generally embraced by the people of our nation. How much time will it take? Who knows.
Also, it is well provided for in the Constitution. For those who insist the Constitution only conveys ‘negative rights’, I say how hard is it to frame the right to health care in a negative statement? Not hard at all. IE: “The right to health care cannot be infringed.”
Some say the constitution does not provide the government with the power to provide health care. I disagree.
“US Constitution
Article I
Section 8
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States”
It CAN collect taxes to PROVIDE for the general WELFARE of the United States. Simple enough.
Good job on your article. I hope this idea will flourish among our populace given our current ability to observe other free nations who consider health care a human right.
I’m of the mind that the right to health care could be made a constitutional amendment (after all, if a citizen cannot afford a lawyer, one is provided by the State), though I don’t see that happening given the current lack of agreement our nation holds on the subject itself.


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