Miss USA got it right, health care is a privilege

Well, the Miss USA pageant has done it again. There hasn’t been this much controversy about a pick since Donald Trump owned the organization.

Last Sunday evening — Mother’s Day! — saw Kara McCullough win the title of “Miss USA.” A black woman, she was born in Italy, where her father was stationed with the Marine Corps. She went on study radiochemistry and now works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. By all accounts, she is a smart, talented, hard-working lady.

In the final stages of the show, she received a tough question during the Q&A session. It wasn’t about world peace, puppies, or a favorite recipe. Instead, she was asked to take a position on one of the major philosophical debates surrounding public policy today: Does she consider health care a privilege or a right?

Her answer? Privilege.

You have to give her credit. Most responses in pageants are middling milquetoast non-answers. She made the choice to tackle the question head-on. Yet, with that answer, she was predictably lambasted by those on the left for failing to state health care is a right. Days later, she “walked back” her remarks in the face of a social media onslaught.

Miss USA Kara McCullough. David Becker | Reuters

But McCullough hit on something very profound with her original response. In our American tradition, something can be crucial, essential, necessary, important … and not a “right.” The way we define “rights” is part of our civic legacy, a legacy traced all the way back to the founding of our nation.

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” With those immortal words, Thomas Jefferson offered his restatement of John Locke’s philosophy, distilling an American understanding on the role of governments and nature of man.

In our tradition, rights are inherent to every individual and exist outside of time or space. Your right to self-defense, as a logical extension of your right to life, is yours regardless of any government or other authority. The means to effectuate that right — such as privately owned firearms — may be protected via the structure of government, such as our Constitution’s Second Amendment, but those protections are separate from the right of self-defense itself.

After all, if you believe an individual has inherent rights merely by virtue of their humanity, then rights may not be contingent upon a certain level of technological advancement. Cavemen, ancient Greeks, and American Minutemen each were free to defend themselves from threatened violence; one might use clubs, another spears, and the third a Brown Bess musket. But the right was the same.

This is where our language, and thus our debates, begin to break down. The United Nations wants internet access to be declared a right. Fifty years ago, not even Queen Elizabeth could not have accessed the web; it didn’t exist. In the course of just her reign, she has seen the internet invented, deployed globally, and declared — in some quarters — to be a right. Were her predecessors denied that right because no one had bothered to invent it yet?

Meanwhile, as we saw in response to Miss USA, many in our country want health care to be considered a right. But the term “health care” is amorphous and, in many ways, technologically dependent. Do people have a right to the treatment of their choice? What about if their behavior, such as tobacco use, is exacerbating their problem and they refuse to change? And if a patient wants assistance with a medical procedure that a doctor or nurse might morally object to participating in, such as assisted suicide, does the medical professional have any right to say “no”?

The word “right” should not be used lightly; it denotes something that conveys power to an individual based on their status. It could be inherent in their humanity, like Jefferson’s unalienable rights. It could be a protection afforded by a social contract, like the Second Amendment or the right to petition government for the redress of grievances. But, in the American tradition, we do not consider goods or services you receive — health care, internet access — to be rights.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t important.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary.  And it doesn’t mean there isn’t a moral imperative to ensure people have access to those things regardless of cost or station.

But Miss USA was correct; health care is not a right. It’s a privilege.  A privilege that exists due to the hard work of and technological advancement by countless individuals and generations past. So let’s make sure we make that privilege available to everyone we can.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.