We Americans hold our rights dear, especially those celebrated in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And we expect our government will do everything necessary to secure these rights for us. But, as a neighbor of mine who was battling cancer alerted me years ago, our rights can be easily imperiled. With tears in his eyes, he told me, “Once you lose your health, you lose everything.”
From my neighbor, I learned that if our government were truly created to secure our fundamental rights, it must do whatever it can to preserve, protect and defend the bedrock of these rights: the health of all Americans.
So what exactly is the relationship between our federal government, as framed in our Constitution, and our health care? Although Congress has been debating the topic, it unfortunately merely discusses who gets covered, what gets covered and how expensive it might be. Missing from these debates is a principled discussion about the government’s essential connection to health care.
Sen. Bernie Sanders is the lone exception to this: He has stated on numerous occasions that government-provided health care is a constitutional right. However, he never specifies where this right appears in the Constitution. Despite Sanders’ insistence, it is likely that health care is not a constitutional right because this right would encumber the government in ways that none of our other constitutional rights do. It would have to be a special right in that it would have to be provided, instead of constitutionally protected, such as free speech and freedom of religion.
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Still, I agree with Sanders: Universal health care is guaranteed by the Constitution. While it is not a right, health care is stitched into the Constitution. In the preamble, the Constitution notes that our government has been established to, among other things, “promote the General Welfare.” But what does it mean to “promote the General Welfare”?
We can get a sense of this if we take a look at the first unabridged American Dictionary, published in 1828 by Noah Webster, the main grammarian of our early republic. According to Webster, “welfare” means “Exemption from misfortune, sickness, calamity, or evil; the enjoyment of health and the common blessing of life.”
Importantly, this definition of “welfare” twice mentions the role health and sickness play in one’s welfare, suggesting that health is a central component.
As for “promote,” its primary sense, according to Webster, is “to forward; to advance; to contribute to the growth, enlargement or excellence of anything valuable.” The phrase “promote the General Welfare,” given these definitions, commits our national government to advancing and enlarging the health of all Americans — by providing universal health care.
This means that any law that leaves even a single American without health care or that leaves health to the vicissitudes of the private sector violates the mandates of our Constitution.
Thomas Stroik is emeritus distinguished curators’ professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.