The real US healthcare issue: compassion deficiency

The fact that many of us do not feel any urgency to revamp a system that leaves millions of our sick without care is appalling.

During the height of the banking and Wall Street meltdowns, Americans seemed to love clucking about corporate greed. As far as most of us were concerned, the moral debacle was purely the fault of Wall Street, not Main Street.

Yet you don't need a graduate degree to see that the character crisis is not restricted to those summering on Nantucket.

The healthcare debate has revealed that Americans suffer from a compassion deficiency. Many of us would prefer that our fellow citizens go without medical care rather than make even the slightest of sacrifices.

Over the summer, I have heard many groans along the lines of, "I don't want to pay for someone else's visits to the doctor." When pressed, some will retreat to concerns about the degradation of care. But there are plenty who will stick with, "I just don't feel as though I should have to foot someone else's medical bills."

While President Obama insists that changes in our medical system will not require middle-class tax hikes, it is plain that many fear reform will cost them. Apparently, there are a lot of folks who would choose to have young mothers with cancer go without chemotherapy, instead of giving up a bit of that disposable income that is our badge of freedom and individualism.

Those of us who abide below the money mountaintop are acquainted with hardworking people who can't afford some critical medical treatment. Though we are inured to them, I could easily reel off 10 horror stories, including a couple quite close to home.

I reside in a small town and every week there is some kind of raffle or spaghetti dinner to scrounge together the funds to meet the medical expenses of a child with leukemia or a teenager with a brain tumor. We're trying to pay for brain surgery with bake sales!

Back in the late 1980s, I lived in Denmark, where there is superb universal coverage. The rich aside, it is hard to know how anyone could come to the conclusion that Americans are better served by their doctors than the Scandinavians or, for that matter, anyone else in Western Europe. Despite widespread illusions, life expectancy (we rank 42nd) and infant mortality rates (we rank 29th) attest that our healthcare system is not even a contender for the best.

But the issue isn't about the comparative quality of care; rather it's about what we will and will not put up with as a society. As much as the Danes moan about taxes, not many of them would prefer having extra euros over the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they don't have to think of their less fortunate but sick countryman going without medical treatment.

The fact that a significant number of Americans do not feel any urgency to revamp a system that leaves millions of our sick without care is symptomatic of the fact that we must be suffering from a hardening of more than our arteries.

There was a time when highbrows were repulsed by the fact that Americans were not appalled by the levels of violence in films. For a country that loves to moralize, we ought to acknowledge that what does or does not repulse reveals a lot about who we are.

The pandemic lack of compassion for the un- and under-insured is really not that distant from the narcissistic indifference of the avaricious CEOs that we love to sneer at. Anyone who values honesty will have to admit that many of us are not appalled by children dying for lack of medical treatment.

We don't like it, we wish that it could be otherwise, but it doesn't exactly make us sick. And that is appalling.

Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College. His book, "Ethics: The Essential Writings," will be published in the spring of 2010.

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