Human Rights Day: Understanding the debate about healthcare as a human right

Politics, Money

December 10 was Human Rights Day. Did you miss it? It’s easy to do, in the crush of holiday preparations and end-of-year tax planning. But human rights are worth considering, not just on December 10, but every day of the year – especially now, with U.S. politicians, healthcare providers, and patients arguing over the continuation of the Affordable Care Act. At its heart, this debate revolves around a fundamental question: Is healthcare a human right or a legal privilege.

Healthcare as a human right

The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks among the leading advocates for healthcare as a human right. The WHO Constitution posits “…the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being.” To fulfill this standard, WHO states that countries and governments must take legal steps to ensure that each person has access to the healthcare that is “timely, accessible, and affordable” and delivered in a non-biased and non-discriminatory way.

In an op-ed piece for Time magazine, former President Jimmy Carter reiterated his longstanding belief that healthcare is a basic human right, writing that “In a country as rich as the United States, blessed with talented medical professionals, world-class hospitals and research institutes, and an almost unparalleled capacity for technological innovation, the lack of universal health coverage should be a national scandal.” Carter supports the United Nations’ Universal Health Care initiative, which aims for all people to have access to the healthcare they need without financial hardship.

Healthcare as a privilege

On the other side are those who feel that healthcare is a privilege, not a right. This does not necessarily mean that they feel that healthcare shouldn’t be available to all, but they do not believe that it is automatically incumbent upon government and society to ensure that outcome.

The current Miss USA, Kara McCullough, made headlines when she articulated this position during the question-and-answer portion of the beauty pageant. McCullough, a scientist at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said, “As a government employee, I am granted healthcare and I see first-hand that for one to have healthcare, you have to have jobs.”

Others who support this position turn to a strict constructionist view of the U.S Constitution and Bill of Rights, pointing out that nowhere do those documents mention healthcare as a right. And while Thomas Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as “unalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence, none of our founding documents make mention of who is going to pay for an ambulance to the hospital. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) stated this view in a talk with high school students in Wisconsin in September 2017: “What we have as rights is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Past that point, we have the right to freedom. Past that point everything else is a limited resource that we have to use our opportunities given to us to afford those things.”

So, where do you stand on the question of healthcare as a human right? Don’t wait until next December 10 to give it some thought.