It has become politically popular to equate human desires and wants with human rights. This is, in fact, the battle cry of some factions in the fight for a government-run health care system. But is health care a human right? Let’s examine this premise.
The human rights of Americans are defined by our two founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration, stated it thus:
“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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”
The Constitution of the United States codified this philosophy by instituting a federal government limited in scope and function. The first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, specifically mention certain unalienable rights with which the government is forbidden to interfere. Among these are our rights to speak freely, both in written and spoken form; to worship according to the dictates of our consciences; and to bear arms for self-defense as well as protection from foreign enemies and domestic tyranny.
The founder’s understanding of what constituted a human right was informed by the writings of political philosophers from throughout history, from Plato and Cicero to Locke and Blackstone. When they wrote of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” they expressed their belief in the importance of the individual, his freedom to use his time and talents to pursue opportunities - though with no guaranteed outcomes - and his right to accumulate property in order to provide for himself and his loved ones security and prosperity.
A confusion of the term “right” has led to the current misunderstanding that anything deemed necessary or even desirable must be a right. But a right is something that, by definition, should not involve the usurpation of a fellow citizen’s rights.
Associate justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said “The right to sing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” In the case of health care, once the proponents of universal health care begin swinging their fists they are going to be hitting a whole lot of noses. Unfortunately, the kind of damage inflicted won’t be so easily taken care of in the local hospital emergency room, with or without insurance.
Though it is not in vogue to speak of financial rights these days, they are, in fact, supposed to be protected. They include the right to keep the fruits of one’s labor – these days that’s usually money – and the right to use those fruits as one sees fit. By expecting others to pay for healthcare, the “healthcare is a human right” crowd explicitly violates these rights. To put it bluntly, something cannot be a right when it forces others to sacrifice their own rights.
Another important argument against the concept of health care as a human right is the lack of a clear definition of what health care is. While in its most basic form one would expect it to include preventative care (for example, immunization), and medical and surgical treatment of established illness, does it also include organ transplantation, cosmetic surgery, infertility treatment and the most expensive medicines? For something to be considered a human right the minimum requirement should be that the right in question is capable of definition.
Slogans such as “Health care is a human right” sound reasonable and make great rally signs but, when examined, they do not bear up. Is health care a human right? No, it is a personal responsibility.
Audrey Pietrucha is Interim Coordinator of the Bennington County Campaign for Liberty and founder of the Southern Vermont Liberty Council.