May 6th 2017

Message Discipline — Health Care Is a Right

by Charles J. Reid, Jr.

Charles J. Reid, Jr. was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he majored in Latin, Classics, and History, and also did substantial coursework in classical Greek and modern European languages. It was during his undergraduate days that he developed an interest in canon law, doing a year of directed research in Roman and canon law under the supervision of James Brundage. Reid then attended the Catholic University of America, where he earned J.D. and J.C.L. (license in canon law) degrees. During his time at Catholic University, he organized a series of symposia on the bishops' pastoral letter on nuclear arms. The proceedings of these symposia were published under Reid's editorship as "Peace in a Nuclear Age: The Bishops' Pastoral Letter in Perspective" (Catholic University of America Press, 1986). This book was called by the New York Times "among the most scholarly and unsettling of responses" to the pastoral letter (December 28, 1986).Reid then attended Cornell University, where he earned a Ph.D. in the history of medieval law under the supervision of Brian Tierney. His thesis at Cornell was on the Christian, medieval origins of the western concept of individual rights. Over the last ten years, he has published a number of articles on the history of western rights thought, and is currently completing work on a book manuscript addressing this question.In 1991, Reid was appointed research associate in law and history at the Emory University School of Law, where he has worked closely with Harold Berman on the history of western law. He collaborated with Professor Berman on articles on the Lutheran legal science of the sixteenth century, the English legal science of the seventeenth century, and the flawed premises of Max Weber's legal historiography.While at Emory, Reid has also pursued a research agenda involving scholarship on the history of western notions of individual rights; the history of liberty of conscience in America; and the natural-law foundations of the jurisprudence of Judge John Noonan. He has also published articles on various aspects of the history of the English common law. He has had the chance to apply legal history in a forensic setting, serving as an expert witness in litigation involving the religious significance of Christian burial. Additionally, Reid has taught a seminar on the contribution of medieval canon law to the shaping of western constitutionalism.  Recently, Reid has become a featured blogger at the Huffington Post on current issues where religion, law and politics intersect.


".......there are even religious reasons to support the claim that healthcare is a right. Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican’s head of delegation at the United Nations, declared in March that “health care is a fundamental right ‘essential for the existence of many other rights’ and ‘necessary for living a life in dignity.’” (Catholic News Agency, March 16, 2017). Pope Francis, furthermore, has declared many times, in many venues, that health care is a universal right, as have the American bishops."


The United States House of Representatives, by approving Trump Care legislation on Thursday, May 4, has initiated a major national debate over health care policy. The Democrats must be sure, in the forthcoming debate, to maintain message discipline.

And that message must be very simple: Health care is a right. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans want governmentally-supported or subsidized health care coverage. An opinion poll conducted by the Pew Foundation in January found 60-percent support for the proposition that “the government should be responsible for ensuring health care coverage for all Americans.” Other polls have reached similar results.

There are sound philosophical, policy-based, and even religiously-grounded reasons that justify this widely-shared view. Consider first the idea of the common good. This is an ethical conception of society with deep roots in the American tradition.

When American reformers began their great experiments in public education in the 1840’s and 1850’s, the idea of the common good stood behind their efforts and shaped the goal they had in mind. They believed that all Americans would be made better off if everyone could read and write and solve simple math problems. Americans, all Americans, not merely Americans with school-aged children, contributed through their tax dollars to the building of a public school system that educated a nation. And the standard of living for everyone improved with the achievement of widespread literacy and numeracy.

Consider also the American highway system. The earliest American highways, back in the first days of the Republic, were, many of them, privately-funded tollways. Again, however, the public concluded that the nation was better served by a system of freely-accessible highways supported by tax dollars. The early twentieth century witnessed the birth of the national highway system and the years after World War II gave rise to the Interstate system. Everyone paid for it, not merely those who had drivers’ licenses or those who used the highways. Again, however, the nation as a whole was made better off. This national network of publicly-financed highways now serves as the veins and arteries of American commerce. The common good, once again, was served.

Health care is like these other great public ventures. There was a time when health care was exclusively the concern of private arrangements. That time was the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before the rise of modern medical education and the growth and sophistication of treatments. Those were the days of the avuncular old country doctor. Those days now exist only in old John Ford westerns.

With complexity and sophistication came increased cost. Private insurance plans defray the expenses for many Americans, but we know that there are many people who do not receive healthcare coverage through their employment. And they are the ones most immediately threatened by the Republican Party’s rollback of healthcare protection.

And for those people, indeed, for all people, healthcare is a right. It is a right grounded on the common good, in the same way that a right to an education and a right to use the highway system have become established features of American public life. Shared civic responsibility. This was the great animating principle behind public education and the highway system, and it should similarly drive the effort to make the right to healthcare real.

To move from the philosophical to policy-based arguments, one should not want a system where bankruptcy is a real possibility whenever one gets sick. A prosperous middle class is beneficial to the nation’s well-being, and the beggaring of those who have the bad luck to get cancer or heart disease does no one any good. Furthermore, entrepreneurship may well flourish under a system of broad-based governmentally-supported medical care. Men and women will be more likely to “go it alone” and start their own businesses if they feel secure about their healthcare coverage.

Finally, there are even religious reasons to support the claim that healthcare is a right. Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican’s head of delegation at the United Nations, declared in March that “health care is a fundamental right ‘essential for the existence of many other rights’ and ‘necessary for living a life in dignity.’” (Catholic News Agency, March 16, 2017). Pope Francis, furthermore, has declared many times, in many venues, that health care is a universal right, as have the American bishops.

The Republican Party has attacked this right. The Democrats must respond, and they must do so by keeping their message simple and clear. The right wing knows how to maintain message discipline. They have spent decades reducing complex ideas to simplistic bumper-sticker slogans and reciting those slogans endlessly until they form part of the common consciousness of the nation.

It is time for Democrats to identify slogans of their own. And a good place to start is, “health care is a right.”

Democrats should not have burst into song last Thursday, when the House bill passed. Thursday truly was a tragic day for millions of Americans. More properly, Democrats should have denounced, with a single voice, a Republican Party willing to destroy the health care of millions. And the Democrats should repeat, repeat until they grow tired of the repetition: “Health care is a right.”



Charles J. Reid, Jr., has degrees in canon law and civil law from the Catholic University of America; and a Ph.D. in medieval history from Cornell University. He was raised in a union household in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Milwaukee with degrees in classical languages and history. He teaches law at the University of St. Thomas (MN)

For Dr. Charles J. Reid's own web site, please click here.


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