Is Universal Health Care a Human Right? According to the most widely accepted international human rights treaties, yes.
In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a ‘Second Bill of Rights’ for
Americans, declaring ‘freedom from want’ to be one of four essential liberties necessary
for human security. Roosevelt’s definition of freedom included “the right to adequate
medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” The right to health
was subsequently enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted with
American guidance, and has since been recognized in numerous international and
regional human rights treaties.
Unfortunately, the United States turned its back on Roosevelt’s vision, and as a result our
health care system is in a state of ever-deepening crisis. Despite spending far more per
capita on health care than any other country, U.S. has some of the poorest health
indicators in the industrialized world. It is the only industrialized nation to deny its
citizens universal access to medical services. Fully one-third of the population lacks
health insurance for at least part of the year. Of the 44 million who are completely
uninsured, 78.8% work full or part-time. The lack of available care is especially acute for
those living in rural areas, and for minorities.
This record can be largely attributed to the notion that health care is simply one
commodity among others, a privilege for those who can afford it rather than a
fundamental human right for all. With a system that values profits over people, it is no
surprise that health care costs continue to spiral out of control for ordinary Americans
even as HMOs and pharamaceutical companies accumulate record-breaking profits.
Health care policy needs to be about the right to health. The current debate over
health care reform tends to bog down in ideological disputes and arguments over
economic efficiency. In contrast, a human rights approach would focus on the underlying
purpose of the health care system. The core human rights demand is for outcomes
consistent with internationally-recognized standards—regardless of whether the health
system is private or public. Framing health care reform as a matter of right establishes a
mechanism for government accountability and encourages public participation in the
decisions that affect our lives and well-being.
Health care must be universally available and accessible. Basic human rights
principles hold that health care must be accessible and affordable to all, irrespective of
race, gender, religion, geography, and income. The increasing costs of providing services
combined with the waste and inefficiency apparent in the current system result in fewer
and fewer people having access to basic health care. Policymakers must ask at the outset
how well a given plan will work to cover all—not most, or more, but all—people in this