Monday, April 27, 2009

Meeting the Basic Welfare of Society

By William F. Schulz
The most important moment of the 2008 presidential debates was one that was little remarked upon at the time. It was in the second debate that the candidates were asked whether health care was “a privilege, a right or a responsibility.” Senator McCain said it was a responsibility -- of government and business. But Sen. Obama said that it “should be a right for every American” and cited as “fundamentally wrong” his mother’s experience of being denied payment for her treatments as she lay dying of cancer.

What was important about Obama’s comment was not just his commitment to guaranteeing access to health care for every American but that the would-be President had framed a social good – in this case, health care – in terms of a human right.

Americans typically think of rights in terms of the traditional civil and political rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution: such things as freedom of speech, press and religion; racial equality; and due process. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which the U.S. voted for in 1948, has a much more robust understanding of rights, encompassing such economic and social rights as the right to education, to work, and, indeed, to health care. Article 25 of the UDHR, for example, says that “Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.”