Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Healthcare: A Right or a Privilege?

The basic debate in the U.S. over healthcare is not really about costs or “freedom to choose one’s own doctor.” The facts are clear: The World Health Organization rates the U.S. 37th(!) in healthcare while we spend a much higher percentage of our Gross Domestic Product on healthcare than Canada, Europe, New Zealand, Australia or other industrial democracies for this lower quality coverage. Further, people without health insurance cannot “choose their own doctor,” and most health plans limit the choice of doctors to those within their insurance networks. A universal, single-payer, health insurance program would both increase the choices of physicians available to most Americans and would, after initial start-up costs, lower healthcare costs overall. These facts have been known for decades. These are fake issues to distract voters.

The real issue is whether healthcare is a right (as most progressives believe) or a privilege for those who can afford it (as most conservatives believe). If healthcare is a right (arguably a “prolife” position), then universal healthcare is mandatory. But if healthcare is simply another consumer commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, then conservatives are right to simply “leave things to the market.” I don’t know that there is a logical or “value-free” way to choose between these alternatives. These alternatives come down to basic convictions–basic ways of looking at the world. The “privilege” position sees human life as competition between autonomous, individuals–each looking out for her or his self interest only. But the “healthcare as a right” position, which I hold, sees us all as interconnected and the flourishing of all of us, and the common good, as necessary to the flourishing of individuals as well.

I don’t mind that conservatives disagree with my views on healthcare as a human right. That’s a healthy debate. What I mind is that many Republicans are cynically opposing universal healthcare NOT out of genuine conviction that their view is actually better public policy, but because they are afraid that if Democrats actually manage to deliver universal healthcare that they will become so popular with Americans that Republicans will continue to lose into the foreseeable future! In other words, these Republicans are opposing universal healthcare NOT because they think it will be harmful, but because they are afraid it will be successful and popular! This is outrageous. For shame!

Of course, these Republicans have reasons to be worried. After all, even though most Democrats (including Pres.-Elect Obama) have been too timid to propose a truly universal, single-payer, healthcare system (although, see this plan), polls have constantly shown that most Americans support it. This has been true for a very long time, so the GOP has used a variety of fear tactics to derail the struggle for universal healthcare. Often these tactics were racist: When Pres. Harry S. Truman tried to enact universal healthcare in 1945, opponents got Southern Senators to vote against it by claiming that if it passed the South would have to integrate its segregated hospitals. (They were probably right. When Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson managed to pass Medicare and Medicaid legislation in the 1960s–short of the universal healthcare he wanted–it did lead to the desegration of the South’s horrible segregated medical facilities.) Other times, the fear tactic was of “socialism,” or, in the ’90s, the fear of losing the ability to choose one’s own doctor.

It’s time to set fears aside. Quality healthcare for everyone is morally mandated as part of the right to human life and flourishing and demanded as necessary for the common good. We should enact it into our nation’s social contract–and “unelect” any politician or party which attempts to obstruct progress toward this common good.

To join the struggle for guaranteed, quality, universal healthcare, sign up at Healthcare-NOW! This has to be done during the “honeymoon period” of the Obama presidency (even though it goes beyond his plan, there’s no way he’d veto it), the 1st 100 days.  The current financial crisis actually helps with the opportunity:  Ask the Big 3 Auto makers how much labor costs they’d save if there were a single-payer national health insurance plan.  That savings would be passed on to the consumer in the form of less expensive cars.  Unions could stop having to choose between working for higher wages and working to keep shrinking healthcare benefits.  Small business owners, farmers, and others who cannot afford group health plans would be better able to weather the current financial storm.  This would also encourage entrepeneurs to risk start up businesses without endangering their families by leaving jobs with health benefits.  The drain on our emergency rooms would go down.  And we would reap a healthier and more prosperous nation.


November 22, 2008 - Posted by | human rights.


  1. Nice post, Michael. I think one small thing Christians who agree with you can do is work at a theological underpinning for human rights. I recently had opportunity to listen to and converse with Nicholas Wolterstorff. His new book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs is unfortunately too heavy on fairly technical (and to me distracting) philosophical meanderings, but his basic argument is very attractive. He grounds justice in human rights based on the confession of every human being having inestimable worth. Helpfully, he develops this argument biblically as well as philosophically.

    If we can come up with a strong and clear theological and biblical rationale for human rights, we should be able to persuade at least some Christians who tend to accept the right-wing dismissal of the right to health care to rethink their stance.

    Comment by Ted Grimsrud | November 23, 2008

  2. Ted, there has been some theological work on human rights, but most of it is at least a decade or more old. I wrote “Setting the Record Straight: Christian Faith, Human Rights, and the Enlightenment,” in the 1992 issue of The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (now The Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics) and there were earlier efforts by Moltmann, David Hollenbach, S.J., etc. In my article, I note that the first use of the term “rights of man” was by Richard Overton, the 17th C. English General Baptist (who had spent time in Amsterdam as a member of the Waterlander Mennonite Congregation). I point to biblical warrants cited by a few Church Fathers, some Medieval thinkers, a few passages in Menno Simons, and from the left wing of the Reformed tradition (especially the Covenant Theology tradition)–but Overton is the first to articulate it clearly–fifty years before John Locke.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 23, 2008

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