Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Health care is not a "right"

Great article by Kevin O'Brien printed in the Dispatch today (reprinted below). Calling health care a "right" cheapens our real rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I understand that people want good health care and I agree that the health care system in place today is not ideal. But to keep referring to health care as a right is ridiculous.

For example, Sen. Max Baucus is going to release his health care plan next week ( and one of the things he is proposing is a tax on "insurance companies that provide the most expensive insurance plans". Do we tax someone for breathing too much? No, because the right to life is a God given right and no one has the authority to decide how much breathing is too much. I have the right to breath as rapidly or as slowly as I want. But apparently the government can decide when someone has too much health care. And if I or anyone else crosses that threshold, I am hit with extra taxes. How can too much of a right be taxed? It is completely illogical.

Anyone who talks about health care as a right has already lost my attention because anyone who is that illogical should not be heard.


With all due respect to Cassandra Barham of Cincinnati, whose personal desire for health insurance is perfectly understandable, and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose confusion is not: Health care is not and cannot be a "right."

Barham drew boos at a town hall last week with Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown when she said, "You know, health care is a right."

The bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development deserves some hisses, too, for a serious mistake in an otherwise good case it presented last month to members of Congress.

Committee Chairman Bishop William F. Murphy wrote that efforts to reform the U.S. health-care system "must begin with the principle that decent health care is not a privilege, but a right ."

That's a principle based on a false premise.

Life is a right. It is a gift from God or, if you prefer a nonreligious approach, nature. From the moment we're able to take care of ourselves, other people need not intervene to cause us to continue living. We pay no fee to breathe. We require no one's permission to do so. We owe our lives to no person, and we live as long as our perishable bodies will allow. All by itself, life goes on.
Liberty is a right, too. Any philosopher worth his salt will tell you that in a state of nature, humans are free.

We may choose -- freely -- to constrain our elemental freedom with civil laws, religious strictures and unwritten but broadly held moral and ethical rules, all subject to renegotiation as we constantly adjust society's balance between individual liberty and social order. But we need not petition anyone to grant us liberty; we come into this world already owning it. Bishop Murphy's church teaches that God makes us to be free actors, each possessing a free will.
Now, what about health? Does it occur naturally?

Far from it. What occurs naturally is its polar opposite, death. From the day of our conception, each of us is on a downward slope that leads to the day when even the healthiest person's body will fail and die. The experience of thousands upon thousands of years tells us with perfect clarity that good health is not a God-given or naturally occurring right. Earthly immortality is neither granted to us nor achievable by our own efforts.

Nor, it should be obvious, can health care be a gift from God or nature.

Doctors, nurses, dentists, therapists, pharmaceutical products and MRI equipment do not spontaneously occur. They exist only because our society puts effort into training medical experts and developing healing technologies.

All are products of human ingenuity and activity -- of human labor. And no one has a right simply to help himself to the labor of another. We abolished slavery in this country long ago.
What Cassandra Barham wants is the peace of mind that comes with health insurance, and no one can blame her for that. We can make health care in this country more accessible and more affordable, and we should.

We may end up declaring health insurance to be anything from a universal civic benefit to an individual civic duty. But we can't make health care a right, even by turning it over to the government.

Somewhere along the way, the government would have to say something it cannot say to law-abiding people when it comes to life or liberty: No.

Now, if health care were a fundamental human right, then how could saying no -- something that other countries' government health services say all the time -- be anything other than a crime against humanity?

The U.S. Catholic bishops have a card to play in all of this, but it isn't the one the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development has shown.

What they should be writing about, and what all Americans should recognize, is not a nonexistent "right" of people in need to take -- or to have the government do their taking for them -- but the moral obligation that exists on the part of people who are in a position to give.

They should argue that the lack of basic health care for some people is an injustice. They should not, however, argue for compounding one injustice with another -- an infringement on the ability of medical professionals to sell their labor for just compensation, as determined by a free market.
There is no right to health care. Creating one is beyond the power of the church or the state. Any solution that ignores those facts will be rooted in deception and doomed to failure.

Kevin O'Brien is a columnist with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

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