Mainewhile: Be selfish. Demand universal heath care

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I must have been in college when I first read “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins.

If I am honest, I did not so much “read” the book as dip into it here and there. It was not an assigned work for a course I was in; I was sort of “eavesdropping” on another course. Still, let’s be clear that I am a tad fuzzy on specifics when I say that the premise of the book is that an organism will do what is best for itself in order to survive.

Regardless of my lack of specificity with the details, that theory made an impression on me and I have found myself applying the theory (or my version of it) in a wide range of contexts. This theory helped me make sense of my work as a social worker, when settling disputes in the classroom, and on campaigns. It is sort of my go-to pet theory and I rely upon it a great deal. Which is why I am so baffled about the nation’s conversation around access to health care.

As one of the many, many people who exist on self-funded health insurance, I am acutely aware that I am one wrong step away from a catastrophic hospital bill – and heaven forbid I get cancer or some other illness that requires treatment.

My parents are in their mid-80s, and visits to the doctor are now a regular (and intensive) event. So on a personal note (pet theory working fine), I would dearly love to see a better, more efficient, and more affordable health care system in place. I would love to see universal health care, like most of the developed world has, brought here and tested. I am also acutely aware that others, especially those who are elected to office, feel differently. And this is where my favorite pet theory jumps the rails, and life stops making sense.

Why? Why in a world of selfish determinism is universal health care for all (not to mention paid sick leave) not the obvious choice?

On the surface, sure, you can argue that the selfish gene is working as people look out for themselves and their bottom line. I listen to the arguments against it and I hear that universal health care is too expensive, or too cumbersome. Most often, what I hear is actually a very strange argument that seems based on some sort of “merit” system – that those without adequate health care don’t deserve, or haven’t earned, the right to better care, while those with health care are proactively guarding it against intrusion.

“Why should I have to pay for someone else’s care?” That sort of thing. That’s nuts.

I could argue the issue on humanitarian grounds. I believe in that argument. I believe that access to health care is a fundamental right. As a minister’s daughter, I certainly grew up being told that providing open, full access to health and healing, without judgment and without payment, was a faith-based issue, so I suppose I could come at it from that angle, too, if I weren’t squeamish about using religion in an argument (which I am, so I won’t). Where I am really intrigued is in biological driving forces: the selfish gene angle.

It is a basic truth: having a healthy population overall is in everyone’s individual best interest. The server at the restaurant who can’t afford to stay home on a sick day? They are touching your food dish. This is how flu becomes an epidemic. The person with untreated TB? They are coughing in your air stream. The people who can’t focus at work because of concerns over a loved one’s unpayable hospital bills? Lost productivity. The situational examples are endless.

I realize it’s complicated. I realize there are numerous laws and regulations to sort out. However, I refuse to believe that we are somehow fundamentally “less able” than Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Thailand, China, or any of the many, many nations that offer free health care. We can do this. We have bright minds, staggering science and inventive people.

Let’s all be a little more selfish and provide access to quality, affordable health care for all.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at heather@heatherdmartin.com.

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