Thursday, May 1, 2008

Health care is an unalienable right

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.

Never before in the history of the world had such a bold statement of the inherent worth and dignity of every man, woman, and child been conceptualized, let alone set down as the challenge for a new form of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. With these words, Thomas Jefferson conceived and the assembled representatives of the original thirteen American colonies affirmed that when “Governments, instituted among men and deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed, become destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it and institute a new Government so as to most likely effect their Safety and Happiness.”

It is the DUTY of government to effect the safety and happiness of the people. It is a duty so sacrosanct that the people have the right, if not the obligation, to change the government should it fail to do so. This is the most important principle responsible for the birth of this, the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful nation on the face of the earth.

Yet, today, nearly one of every six Americans is vulnerable to bankruptcy, misery, and even an early death because they do not have the financial means to pay their medical bills. Why? Because Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness has been turned into just another commodity to be bought and sold on the open market, like butter, guns, and video games. If you can pay for it, you get it. If not, well, too bad. You can always go to the emergency room, if you can get there, where you will be humiliated and treated as a charity case.

For me, the most unforgettable scene in the recent HBO miniseries, John Adams, occurs early on, when Abigail Adams, left alone to raise their four children and terrified at the prospect of the entire family coming down with smallpox, makes the incredibly courageous decision to have the family inoculated against that horrific disease. The doctor—was he a specialist?—arrives with a horse-drawn cart containing the ravaged body of a teenaged boy with an advanced case of the pox. Using a crude instrument, the doctor scrapes some of the erupted goo from a pustule on the boy’s body, which he then rubs into a small cut on an arm of each member of the family. The only daughter develops a mild form of the disease but survives.

I don’t know if Massachusetts Mutual existed in 1776. If they did, they probably would have denied a medical claim for such treatment as “experimental”, which it surely was. Perhaps the doctor didn’t charge for his services; he may well have thought that that sick boy in the wooden cart paid more than a fair price for the services rendered.

What a powerful metaphor for the reality that, as human beings, we are all both the victims and the hope of each other when it comes to the security of our health. We have all felt threatened at some time or another by a person behind us sneezing on a bus or coughing on an elevator. We have known what it is to become ill following an airplane ride or worry when a coworker comes to work sick. None of us is truly healthy until all are healthy or, at least, receiving the quality health care we all deserve.

Maintaining a quality system of comprehensive health care, accessible to everyone equally, is as sacred a trust among the free peoples of a democracy as the assurance that we will not deliberately physically harm each other. If it is a crime to willfully do injury to another person, why is it not a crime to deny that victim the dignity not to have to "beg" for the treatment that will restore her to wholeness? A civilized society takes upon itself certain obligations, including the responsibility to not only do no harm but also to do good—to see that we all—men, women, children—never suffer from lack of the best health care we as a nation can afford.

Let us take up this cause—both today and for as long as accident, disease, mental illness, and visual or hearing infirmity afflict our fellow citizens. Let us make Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness more than a promise but a hallmark of our democracy and the fulfillment of our Founding Fathers’ dream of so long ago. Let us resolve today to make comprehensive, universal, not-for-profit health care the American standard and the freshest and brightest new promise to our children and our children’s children.

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