Social Justice and the U.S. Affordable Care Act: Part 1

IMGP3158September 15, 2013

As President Obama took on the health care issue, his overall aim appeared to be to address access to health care for those who do not have it. This includes some of our most vulnerable citizens, ranging from children living in poverty to the elderly who lack the resources for care. This President, as others before him, sought to promote the dignity of citizens through the provision of health care and to exercise social justice in ways that represent ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence—promoting “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The U.S. Constitution, which was adopted in 1787 as the supreme law of the newly formed national government for the thirteen states, does not endow Americans with a protected right to health care. This was a conclusion reached by the U.S. Supreme Court but one that finds itself at odds with other republics where a level of health and health care are explicitly guaranteed [see Poland, for example—p. 3 of].

The reasons for an absence of reference to health and health care in the U.S. Constitution likely reflect both the desire to avoid government intervention—related to the very foundation leading to the formation of this nation–and the practical reality that medicine was in its infancy at that time. Thus, there was not much anyone, let alone government, could do to promote the health of individuals. Family comprised the primary unit of both social and economic life, and family assumed the role of caring for sick and injured members.

Very early on, these realities conflicted with the fact that merchant seamen, who acted on behalf of the welfare of all U.S. citizens, became ill and/or disabled in the performance of their duties. Thus, it was only “just” to pay for their health care. In accord with this premise, Congress passed an act to provide for merchant seamen’s medical care in 1798. Congress used the authority of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution to support this policy. It empowers the federal government to regulate commerce with foreign nations and to tax for the general welfare as a means to that end. The health and well-being of individual seamen was not the argument used to support a role for government in providing health care. The need for a government role in health and health care resided in a focus on promoting commerce. Government efforts to provide health care, however, were squarely on the table, beginning a path toward where we are today.


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