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Editor's Letter: Do Americans have a right to medical care?

Once you endow citizens with certain inalienable rights, you set in motion a process that’s hard to stop.

Do Americans have a right to medical care? The question is rarely posed that nakedly, but it’s the essence of what we’ve been arguing about at such length, and with such ferocity, over the past year. Show us, say the opponents of health-care reform, where in the Constitution it says that citizens are entitled to “well care’’ visits, Prozac, and MRI exams. And they have a point. Amid its guarantees of free speech, the right to bear arms, and a timely trial by a jury of your peers, our founding document contains not a word about health care. But once you endow citizens with certain inalienable rights, you set in motion a process that’s hard to stop.

The Founders concluded that all men had God-given rights, as long as they were white male property owners. Over time and after a lot of trouble, the list of rights, and groups who claimed them, expanded inexorably. After the Civil War, African-Americans banged on the door, and then women and a parade of dirt-poor immigrants fresh off the boat. Then came the Depression, the social safety net of the New Deal, and the reforms of the Great Society: Americans now had the right to eat, to have some kind of roof over their heads, to retire in reasonable comfort. More recently, people sought, and eventually won, the right to do things that society once considered crimes: to eat lunch in “whites only’’ sections of restaurants, to have sex out of wedlock, to marry people of other races. And so it goes. Whether our new, complex health-care system is a success or not, the right to medical care will not be rescinded. When it comes to rights, the arrow of history points but one way.

William Falk

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