Is healthcare a human right?

There’s been a fashion recently amongst conservatives to argue that healthcare isn’t a human right as a reason for dismantling free or affordable access to healthcare as a social policy. If healthcare isn’t a right, then people from the wealthier demographics in society don’t have to subsidise everyone else and can keep more of their money for themselves. Basically – fuck the poor, we want our tax cuts. I’d like to offer a counter-argument.

The thing is, that because rights are only human ideas about how we treat each other, it’s up to us to decide what’s a right and what isn’t. Universal human rights are a pretty recent idea, only as old as the knowledge that we exist as a single species on the planet. Back in the day there were still notions of rights for people, look at the Magna Carta, but they weren’t extended comprehensively amongst everyone – they had tribal, cultural and racial limits. I guess what’s modern is the definition of “human”. And even now the idea of rights which cover every individual who shares a specifically human D.N.A. is developed from theories of ethics, justice and law which are exquisitely human, verbal inventions. Which means that we have the authority to collectively decide what each individual person’s rights are within our society. Of course we’re also collectively deciding what our responsibilities to others are as well – we’re agreeing everyone has the right to these beasic considerations, as long as they’re not impinging on others in the same way (so that freedom of movement is suspended for criminals eg). But we’re deciding.

And the decisions we make about the rights in our society determine what sort of a society we live in. We could abolish the right to free speech, for example, but it would make our society more restrictive and suffocating. We could abolish the right to practice religion, or just certain religions, although this would also have an effect demographically in a way that correlated with racial groupings and might be considered racist. I wouldn’t want to live in a society that treated people like that, it’d be shit.

So no, universal healthcare is not a human right by some law of nature, but then no other right is either, even the right to life. It’s a question of what sort of society we want to live in. I’d like to live in a society where the vulnerable and the needy are looked after. Actually looked after properly, treated with care, dignity and respect. Part of the very point of healthcare is that it’s only ever accessed when there’s a need, because healthy people don’t go to the doctors. So it’s there for people who need it. And if someone needs healthcare and it isn’t there, that’s going to put them in a desperately shitty situation. I don’t want to live in that sort of a society, that lets people who need healthcare go without it. I don’t want people to become that desperate, that vulnerable. I would prefer to live in a caring, decent society – which means I think access to decent healthcare should be a right.

And that’s the answer. No, healthcare doesn’t have to be a human right, not if you’re ok with living in a nasty, uncaring, dystopian society where people live in desperate need and are left to rot because they don’t have enough money to live. But if you want to live in a decent, caring society that doesn’t bankrupt people for being too ill or let them die for being too poor, then healthcare is definitely a right .


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