Commentary: Health care as a moral issue --Calling Dr. Salk

Special to McClatchy NewspapersOctober 12, 2009 

The next time you see an expensive ad for the latest pharmaceutical innovation, think of this conversation between famed broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow and Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine.  

Murrow asked, "Who owns the patent on this vaccine?"

Salk answered, "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent.  Could you patent the sun?"

What? No considerations about market shares, billion dollar profits, high-profile media blitzes? Such naivete.

The essence of today's health care debate revolves around the question of whether we as a society wish to view medical care as a fundamental human right or simply another marketplace commodity.

In the past decades it was the latter voice that had been the most outspoken.  

This had been part of a trend, a shifting of values. As a society, we complacently tolerated greater selfishness, no matter that it came at the expense of the greater good. Social protections (pensions and health care insurance, for instance), that were formerly an obligation of employers and the state, were dismantled and replaced by a system guided by an ethic of personal responsibility.  

Many decent, hard-working people unthinkingly accepted this ideology.  Those with quality health insurance who had saved for retirement suffered the illusion of invulnerability and denied how close they or their loved ones were to devastation brought on by job loss, illness or pension plans going bust.  

Moreover, just like people do today, they justified a society that did not provide health care for others by convincing themselves that those without insurance are irresponsible and therefore undeserving of help to meet their basic needs.

How else could good people stand by a system that each year permits the death of 22,000 Americans for lack of health insurance or 700,000 go bankrupt due to medical bills?

Some have charged that the number of uninsured, 47 million, is over-inflated.  What if it was only 10 million?  Would that number be acceptable? Each one represents a human being. What if it was you, your mother, father, son, daughter, sibling or best friend?  Each one of the millions is someone's parent, brother, sister or child.

It's mind-numbing, isn't it, that so many of our fellow-citizens decry the distribution of resources from the top down?

Over the past decade, when wealth distribution was going from the bottom up -- from every-day workers and share holders to the top 1-percent of wealthy Americans -- far too many voices were silent.  It was only when the economy went into free fall that we could see just how interdependent we all are.

What shall be our national health care policy?  

Should a fellow-citizen with fewer resources have less chance of avoiding preventable illness or of being cured from illness as does one from a wealthy family? In every other advanced, free-market democracy the answer is an unequivocal, "No," and it is what our answer should be as well.

Let's face it, though.  The United States will always protect a health care system which is two-tiered, the medical-care equivalent of public education for the masses and private schools for those who can afford them. I can live with that, provided that we hold ourselves to basic ideals of justice and a shared acceptance of social responsibility.

Our country has come dangerously close to being transformed from a country of the people to a country only for wealthy elites, from a democracy to an oligarchy. As Bill Moyers once said, ‘"our nation can no more survive as half democracy and half oligarchy than it could survive half slave and half free, and that keeping it from becoming all oligarchy is steady work -- our work."

We face a choice: living in a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common good or living in a more contentious society where groups -- particularly those with wealth and power -- selfishly advance their own benefits, no matter the social cost.

Solving the current crisis in our health care system requires us to continue tempering the ‘"ethic of individual rights" with the "ethic for the common good." Will we commit to a sacred covenant that insures basic health care as a right for all our citizens?

Collectively, we must add our voices to the national chorus of conscience.


Mr. Meyer is a clinical social worker at Duke University Medic al Center where he holds faculty appointments in the Departments of Psychiatry and Ob/Gyn.  He can be reached at

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