Is access to healthcare a human right?
Welcome to the third installment of The Question: "Is access to healthcare a human right?"
This time around, we kick things off with posts from Simone Childs-Walker ('12), Rachel Levit-Ades ('13), and a joint post by Professor Amna Khalid (history) and Professor Paul Petzschmann (European Studies).
We encourage you to join the discussion with comments or questions of your own. There are various events happening this term, and early next term, related to The Question, including Convocation on May 11th with Carleton Alum, and prominent bioethicist, Peter Ubel. Be sure to check out the EthIC calendar and consider "liking" us on Facebook in order to stay abreast of all EthIC events.
Simone Childs-Walker ('12)
To me, The Question immediately elicits another question: what is a human right? To answer The Question, we need a definition of “human right,” something that “access to healthcare” is or is not. Philosophers and political philosophers have given various definitions and some deny that there are such things as human rights at all. Unfortunately, I just don’t know what a human right is or whether “access to healthcare” is one.
From a practical, local, perspective, however, I am comfortable giving an answer. Should all members of, for example, the Northfield community (citizens, non-citizens, children, elderly, the unemployed) have access to medical resources to help them overcome illness and stay well in the first place? Absolutely. Were I in any other person’s shoes, I could not but hope and expect to have the same access to health care that I do now. To deny that every member of the Northfield community should have that access would contradict my recognition of myself as a member of that community.
Also, in the US, access to education is generally considered a “right” (whatever that actually means). As I understand things, health is prior to education. Without access to healthcare, access to education may be meaningless; you can’t go to school (or at least, you can’t learn very well) if you’re sick. If we, as a country, value education and make it available to everyone, we should value healthcare and make it available to everyone too.
Rachel Levit-Ades ('13)
When we talk about whether healthcare is a human right, it seems we’re asking whether people, just because they’re people, are entitled to receive healthcare. Rights are tricky because they deal with the idea of desert; it seems clear that if I save up and legally buy a car, I have the right to that car. “Human rights” are especially difficult to discuss because they attempt to define what we are owed just because we happen to exist.
We enter the world with bodies—in fact, this seems a big part of being “human.” It seems we have the right to our will/soul/mind, if we have the right to anything upon first entering the world. At the very least, bodies are the devices through which our will/soul/mind exists and we experience the world. In this way at least, bodies define a big part of what it is to be “human.” So if there are any rights that ought to conferred just because you are a “human,” rights that have to do with preserving your body, especially from circumstances outside of your control, fit the bill.
How this right ought to be considered on a political level is an entirely different issue. We may have certain rights, but those rights are restricted by the rights of others; any right I have to swing my arm, for instance, ends when my arm reaches your face. Because providing healthcare involves limited resources, we must assess whether there are therefore competing rights at play; if so, the question then becomes how my right to healthcare compares to someone else's right to her full income.
Furthermore, it can seem odd to say an institution ought to make judgments about the value of the bodies of individuals, and we can ask interesting questions about whether presumed rights can be "cashed out" (e.g. if I decline healthcare in a universal system, am I entitled to the monetary value of my potential care?).
Amna Khalid (History) and Paul Petzschmann (European Studies)
Article 25 or the Declaration of Human Rights states, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including … medical care."
Having lived in Pakistan where the healthcare provided by the state is as good as not; in England where the National Health Service provides healthcare for all free at the point of access (from general taxation); in Germany where universal health care works in tandem with private insurance (a mixed model); and now in the US where the debate about universal healthcare is at the top of the political agenda (especially with the upcoming elections), provides a number of different perspectives on how states have chosen to take the obligations arising from the enshrining of health care as a human right.
So the question arises whether it is meaningful to speak of the universal right to healthcare outside the context individual states who are at differencing levels of economic development and have different spending priorities. For example is it reasonable to demand such an expensive public good in Pakistan which is faced with a myriad challenges to its integrity and viability as a state? Should individual states have the right to determine their own priorities? For instance if the US electorate decided that universal healthcare was not a priority for them then can we delegitimize that choice?
So the question is: Is it meaningful to talk of a universal human right to healthcare in the absence of any discussion of corresponding obligations to provide it?