I’m becoming more and more convinced that the talk of health care as a ‘right’ is so vague as to border on willful and culpable obfuscation. I certainly advocate a rich and complex description of ‘rights’ talk, such that simply calling something a ‘right’ doesn’t end the ethical or political discussion. Some ‘rights’ are more fundamental and basic than others, and various ‘rights’ require things of various actors.
But when it is asserted that access to health care is a ‘right,’ what precisely is the claim? Is it analogous to the claim that access to food and water, too, are rights? Very often these rights are equated in contemporary discussions: food and water, shelter, and health care.
One the one hand, however, it’s very odd to assert that health care, at least as practiced in its modern form (with X-ray machines and flu shots) is a right, at least in the sense that it is something that the human person qua person has a claim upon. If that’s the case, then all those millions of people who lived before the advent of the CAT scan were all the while having their rights ‘denied’ them (whether by God, fate, cosmic chance, or oppressive regimes bent upon keeping us from advancing medical technologies). It would also follow that all of those living today without access to these advanced technologies, simply by basis of their geographical and cultural location, are having their rights similarly denied. (This raises the troubling implication, not to be explored in any detail here, that the debate about health care in the industrial and post-industrial West amounts to a series of tantrums by the coddled and privileged about the requisite level of health care, which by any standard already dwarfs what is available to the global poor, who do not have access to what has the best claim upon ‘rights’ talk, even the most basic health care services.)
This raises the further question, if it be granted that health care is in some sense a right (which I am not opposed to granting), “What precisely does that right entail?” Clearly we can’t mean, in the context of the history of humankind, that this is a right to arthroscopic surgery or titanium hip replacement. That would be a bit like saying my right to food means that I have a claim to eating filet mignon. Just because someone else can afford to eat filet mignon doesn’t mean that my right to not starve gives me a similar claim upon filet mignon.
Similarly, just because some people can afford the greatest medical care available in the history of humankind (whether by the providence of God, fate, or cosmic chance), it doesn’t follow that I have a right to health care in that particular form. My basic claim to health care merely on the basis of my humanity is something more like the right to ramen noodles than it is to filet mignon.
This only describes what I am due by rights. It’s the least that’s required by the standards of justice.
And what might love require? “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”