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Government has the right to reform health care

Looking at the level of animosity and vitriol some people have displayed in the debate over health care reform, one wonders what underlies this speech that at times descends to hate. Is the idea of the federal government helping guarantee comprehensive or even vastly improved health care access for nearly all Americans so “un-American” that these displays of temper and threats of violence are somehow justified?

Today people look to the Constitution as the lens through which all pieces of important legislation should be considered. You hear it all the time, an argument that something is “unconstitutional.” There have even been opponents of health reform, including some Republican governors and most recently Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, arguing that the 10th Amendment (stating that powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states or people) justifies a state refusing to accept health reform.

I agree that the Constitution, adopted in 1787, is the single most important document in the United States. It was the first successful attempt at a democratic representative form of government and is the oldest written Constitution still functioning in the world today. It is mostly silent on whether the federal government should be involved with universal health care coverage.

Yet, the Declaration of Independence from 1776, perhaps the nation’s second most important document, has undeservedly been left out of the health care debate.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Why should these words mean anything to health care reform? Though strangely devoid of legal meaning, the declaration remains a powerful affirmation that Thomas Jefferson and the founders (most of whom became framers who drafted the Constitution) believed that everyone unalterably has the right to life. It was their goal that the federal government be tasked with protecting and fulfilling three unalienable (or inalienable as we tend to say today) rights for the people.

‘Life’ and health care

Liberty and pursuit of happiness are what people for the most part today accept as a role of our government. But it would logically make sense that “life” had to mean something for it to be included in the declaration. And that’s where health care reform comes in. Without “life,” there is no liberty nor pursuit of happiness to hope for or achieve.

Did Jefferson and the other founders envision health care in the way it is today? Probably not. At the time, the organized practice of medicine was in its infancy. Surgery, even for the most routine procedure, was a life-threatening ordeal, particularly since the concept of invisible germs had yet to take hold. But that absolutely does not mean that the founders would have seen the federal government assisting Americans to obtain affordable health coverage as anything but an evolution of the broad ideals in the declaration, in tandem with the ideals of this country.

In 1690, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government set forth the basic purposes of having a government work as a social compact between people. Locke’s work was the basis of much of the political thought and ideology that created America’s Constitution and Declaration of Independence. (John Locke was also a doctor, and discussed “life, health, liberty, or possessions” as the bases for this social compact between people.)

We formed a more perfect union in 1776 to get the inalienable rights to liberty, pursuit of happiness and life. The word inalienable is synonymous with “natural,” “universal” or “moral” rights. The word “liberty” is most easily expressed in the Constitution’s First Amendment, with its rights of free speech, press, petition for grievances, and religion.  “Pursuit of happiness” is a more debatable concept, but when combined with the declaration’s “men are created equal,” the readily understood concept of “equality of opportunity” emerges.

But what about “life?”  Thomas Jefferson was one of the most noted statesmen of his time, who led the Democratic-Republican party on a platform against plans to have a centralized federal government as the true powers, he claimed, lay in the states.  Still, he fashioned “life” as an essential responsibility of the United States government.

Life, then and today, means that a person’s life does not end prematurely when he or she faces misfortune and needs a doctor, surgery or other medical treatments.  But for the most part, with the exception of laws that hospitals should treat those who are immediately dying, even if they are penniless, there is precious little that the federal government guarantees its citizenry today regarding “life.”

Our Founding Fathers would see health care reform as a right protected by the government. President Barack Obama has spoken of how health care coverage is necessary from a moral standpoint and he’s right. But health care access is not just the moral and right thing to do. It epitomizes the ideals guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence.

Michael Wein is an attorney in Greenbelt whose practice concentrates in appellate, civil and criminal litigation. He can be reached at 301-441-1151, or [email protected]