Does Justice Demand Health Care?
A few years ago when my wife and I lived in an apartment complex, our next door neighbor, a retired elderly lady, weakly knocked on our door.
We opened it to find that she was gagging on fluids and barely able to breathe. Her medicines had not gone down properly as she had taken too many at a time, and she seemed in danger of choking.
Against her irrational protestations, I called the paramedics. They arrived quickly and were able to facilitate her swallowing and breathing. I was glad we were home.
I was reminded of this incident while in a conversation recently with someone arguing that health care is not a right, but rather a privilege. My interlocutor thought that my neighbor should not have expected my assistance, but that I was right to help her out of compassion. Honestly, I cannot make sense of this. My neighbor didn’t knock on my door so she could borrow my Playstation 2; she needed immediate aid. My aid!
I’d have been a moral monster to stand there and do nothing or to say, politely, “I’m sorry, but I’m a tad busy to privilege you with my time, and frankly I’m bothered that you interrupted my day, expecting my assistance. Take your sense of entitlement elsewhere.”
In that moment, I felt morally obligated to do everything I could for her. Not being trained at the time in CPR, the most I could do was call 911. Alex Knapp recently asked whether or not rights can be discovered; I wouldn’t say that in this situation I discovered my neighbor’s right to health care, but I did discern it as readily evident. Her inability to breathe spoke to me. Perhaps I could hear the call only because I have something of a developed conscience, but heard it I did.
My neighbor’s adult son was grateful, but, as I see it, he would have been perfectly right to be indignant had I refused help. His mother was entitled to my assistance and the care of the paramedics. A refusal to offer this minimal health care in my power would have been a grievous wrong.
This is why I say that health care is a matter of justice. The health care needs of those who require our help and whom we have the power to help obligate us to do what we can for them. My neighbor needed immediate and temporary care from me, and I was able to provide it, but of course people’s health care needs extend beyond the immediate and the temporary. Consequently, the voice of justice also calls us into the future, to institute means of providing long term and permanent care to all those in need whose assistance we have the power to provide.
Yes, when instituting these means, considerations of political feasibility and economic achievability must be made, but, nonetheless, heath care is first and foremost a matter of justice–of giving our due to our neighbor.
At least, that’s how I see it.