Although I have not met him, Congressman Raul Labrador is by all accounts, on a personal level, a kind and decent man. However, in the realm of public policy, where his actions affect millions of his fellow citizens, Labrador’s views can be callous and cruel.
At a town hall meeting last month, one of his constituents asked him whether he thought access to health care was a basic human right. Congressman Labrador’s response was concise, honest, and brutal: “No.” A few weeks later, after the House passed the Trumpcare bill, Labrador elaborated: “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” Across the political spectrum, medical professionals disagree. While exact figures are hard to come by, one might start with a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health that noted that before President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, approximately 45,000 Americans died each year because they lacked health insurance.
This perspective, which is apparently shared by President Trump and the majority of the Republican party, is at odds with both mainstream religious teaching and secular humanist ethics. In Judaism there is abundant room for disagreement over the logistics of how a society provides health care. As prominent medical ethicist Rabbi Elliot Dorff notes: valid Jewish arguments can be made for prioritizing either the private or public sector. But on the underlying question of rights and responsibilities, the tradition’s voice is clear and unequivocal — everyone deserves fair access to healthcare. In Dorff’s words, “We are duty-bound to find a way to afford health care for all American citizens.”
Christian and Islamic scholars agree. The Rev. David Carlson recently made this point in The Statesman, pointing to many New Testament texts that illustrate how, “from the point of view of Christianity, health care is a basic right.” And Dr. Ronald Pies reminds us that the first public hospitals arose in Islamic cultures, with a strong moral imperative to treat all patients regardless of their financial status. The proposition that health care is a fundamental human right is also endorsed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by numerous nations, including our own — and on prominent display in Boise’s Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial.
The Torah teaches: “You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds.” To deny access to health care to any of our fellow citizens due to unemployment, inability to pay, or pre-existing conditions is sinful. When Congressman Labrador and other Republicans fail to see health care as a basic human right — even as they cut taxes for the richest and most privileged Americans — they show themselves to be morally bankrupt. We are a better country than they would have us be.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.