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Is Universal Health Care a Human Right?


Health Care Activist
Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images.
Question: Is Universal Health Care a Human Right?
Answer: According to the most widely accepted international human rights treaties, yes.

Article 25 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) reads (emphasis mine):
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Likewise, Article 12 of the U.N. International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966) reads:
1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:

(a) The provision for the reduction of the stillbirth-rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child;

(b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene;

(c) The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases;

(d) The creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.
Because the United States is a signatory to both treaties, and U.S. policymakers played a role in drafting both treaties, it would stand to reason that health care would be accepted as part of the American understanding of human rights. And it is, at least by most--according to a 2007 CBS News/New York Times poll, 64% of Americans believe that the government has a responsibility to ensure universal health care.

This has historically been the position of left-leaning parties, such as the Democratic Party and the Green Party. But right-leaning parties, such as the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party, hold a different view. "Health care is a privilege," Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) explained in a March 2009 interview. "[I]t's not necessarily a right." Not that fiscal conservatives are necessarily monsters--many of them volunteer to help provide essential medical services, in the United States and abroad--but as a general rule, fiscal conservatives don't believe that tax dollars should be used to fund universal health care. They believe this responsibility should fall on the private sector, and if the private sector isn't able to comprehensively meet needs, calling on the government to pick up the slack simply isn't an option. They see health care as something that good people can grant to those who don't have it, but they don't see it as something to which every human being is entitled.

But international human rights law is unambiguous on the matter: Universal health care is a right, and the government must step in and provide it if the private sector fails to do so. If there are such things as human rights, under the international framework, then health care is definitely among them.
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