Monday, July 5, 2010

A Horse's Tail - Health Rights

Once upon a time, there was a poor farmer, who owned a horse. Unfortunately, over time, the farmer became more and more poor - and was unable to feed his horse. He became angry at his personal situation and began to beat the horse. After some time, the horse became thinner and thinner, welts and sore spots started to show on his flesh and his tail began to fall out.

A neighbors noticed the situation and reported it to the police. The police came and rescued the horse, and the farmer was charged with animal cruelty.

What has this got to do with Personal Health Freedom? An important lesson.

A horse has rights. A horse, or a cow, or a dog has a right to adequate food, and water. And a horse has a right to not be abused physically. The man was charged with violating these rights.

Yesterday, I read a "A Woman's Health Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" written by Dr. Carolyn DeMarco in her excellent book, "Take Charge of your Body". The list consisted of a number of rights and responsibilities, which at first glance I thought might be related to Personal Health Freedom.

Unfortunately, Dr DeMarco got the part about health rights very, very wrong. She lists 9 Rights, and 6 Responsibilities. Two of the proposed 'rights' are severely conditional, for example: "I have the right to choose the types of treatments I prefer from among the options offered to me by my doctor." This list of rights, like many similar lists, is a list of 'medical rights', not health rights. Medical rights apply when you are sick - and should be defined only after your health rights, which apply when you are well and when you are ill, are clearly articulated and understood.

A quick Google of Freedom vs Responsibilities shows many pages stating that you cannot separate Freedom, or Rights, from Responsibility.

Back to the horse. The horse has rights. But what are his responsibilities?

There are none - and none required. Natural 'rights' are not 'conditional on responsibilities', and are not linked to responsibilities. We all have natural rights. Like the horse's rights, our rights are not tied to any responsibilities.

"Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." - there are no conditionals in that sentence from the International Declaration of Human Rights.

The Canadian Bill of Rights goes a bit beyond 'natural rights' (I don't object to that, just want to make clear the difference). It says: "the right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property". 'Enjoyment of property' is not a 'natural' right, it comes with some responsibilities. It is natural for enjoyment of property to come with responsibilities, because owning and enjoying a specific property may take that specific right away from other people.

The United States Declaration of Independence says "...unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". There are no responsibilities tied to these unalienable rights.

But what about 'responsibilities'? Back to the horse. Where do the responsibilities lie? The responsibilities lie on the person with power. The farmer, who owns the horse, is responsible, as part of that ownership, to provide food, water and protection from abuse. The horse is not responsible for anything. If the owner cannot provide for the horse, he can sell it. Or in some countries (or if it is a cow) he can slaughter it, and eat it. But as long as it as alive and 'his possession' - he is responsible to maintain its rights.

Responsibility comes from power. Not with rights. The doctor has responsibilities. The patient has rights. Does responsibility come with 'empowerment'? I think not, but that's another complicated discussion.

Be wary of anyone who says rights and responsibilities are bound together. They are not. Natural rights exist on their own, as a result of their intrinsic merit - and our intrinsic merit.

Responsibilities arise when someone, or some group, exercises power over others. This can happen in a family situation, a social situation, a work situation, a legal situation, a medical situation -- and many other situations.

When we exercise power over others - we have responsibilities.

When someone exercises power over us - we have rights.
... and rightfully so

What are our health rights?

The International Declaration of Human Rights should say: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, security of person, and the pursuit of health and happiness".

The United States Declaration of Independence should say: "...unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Health and Happiness"

The Canadian Bill of Right should say: the right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person, and the pursuit of health and happiness
Tracy is the author of two book about healthicine: