In the discussions about healthcare reform, some conservatives are making an interesting claim. They say that healthcare is not a right, and that we are not obligated to provide it. For an example of such an argument, read this article.
The author writes:
Did you have a right to chemotherapy in 1600 AD? You could have protested to Parliament all you wanted, but chemo just didn't exist. Then, did you have a right to it the moment some genius invented it? You did not pay for the research. You did not make the breakthrough. Where do you get the right? How did it come into existence for you the moment somebody else created these things? I'm pretty sure you cannot have rights to material goods that don't exist, and I am pretty certain that the moment some genius (or business, or even government) brings them into the world your "rights" do not improve. But strangely, many disagree.
This however does not prove that healthcare is not a right in the modern sense. If I were talking to the author, I would ask if he thought some form of education is a right. Most people, including conservatives think that it is. Why? Because we think it facilitates our ability to function as members of a Democratic society, to enjoy our rights and fulfill our duties. To be able to vote, serve on juries, join the military, exercise meaningful free speech, we need to have some base level of education.
That is where the above argument falls apart. Most of us wouldn’t say poor kids don’t have a right to basic education because they can’t afford to pay for books or teachers. We also wouldn’t tell poor kids they don’t have a right to education because somebody else came up with the idea of school.
Applying this logic to healthcare, we might say that healthcare facilitates our ability to enjoy rights and fulfill our obligations. How can you go to school, work, join the military, or serve on a jury if you aren’t reasonably healthy? And the way you get reasonably healthy is by getting healthcare.
To be cute, the author would ask if we have an obligation to give everyone $100,000 facelifts or a $200,000 brand new surgery technique. The answer is no, just as we don’t have an obligation to send every kid to Andover. But just as we guarantee a minimum standard of education that we can reasonably provide, we should guarantee a minimum standard of healthcare that we reasonably can. If most other industrialized countries can provide a minimum, why can’t we? I’m sure we can reasonably provide many treatments that people have to go without because they happen to lack the money.
It is clear that the author primarily thinks of rights in a negative sense. That is he thinks we have a right to free speech or freedom of religion, but he does not think the government has an affirmative obligation to help us exercise them. That is true in some ways. If you want to launch a racist tirade against some minority group, the government does not have to buy you airtime on the radio. That is because your right to go on a racist tirade doesn’t facilitate any of your other rights.