A moral, civil rights issue
‘No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor [his] memory than the earliest possible passage of the [bill] for which he fought so long. ... His heart and his soul are in this bill.”
These words are from a speech made at one of those critical moments in our nation’s history when the character of our country was at stake. In a divided America, the public rhetoric was so filled with vitriol that it belied the fact that all of us in public office share a common desire to do what is best for this country. A vocal minority used every dilatory tactic at its disposal to frustrate the will of the majority of the American people.
While the above quotation could easily refer to my father, and the context could easily describe the health care debate, those words were, in fact, spoken by my father on the Senate floor, as he rose to honor his brother, President John F. Kennedy, during the debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The parallels between the struggle for civil rights and the fight to make quality, affordable health care accessible to all Americans are significant. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
My father always viewed health care in the context of civil rights.
Day in and day out, up close and often very personal, at home in Massachusetts and later here in Congress, on the trips we took to many different parts of the country, I saw him fight to make the dream of health care for all come true.
Whenever my siblings and I were ill, we knew that we had the good fortune to have a father who would make sure we received the best care. But as we recovered, it would be a painful reminder of the many millions of American sons and daughters who had little or no hope of getting anywhere near the quality of care we had. Because they lived in a country that locked and bolted the door against them.
My dad’s commitment to fight for those children as hard as he fought for us ingrained in me the understanding that we have to challenge the status quo. We learned from him that, in America, we could — and should — do better.
One telling aspect of health care, when it is compared with civil rights, is that the most vulnerable Americans are not those living at the edges of our society, for our poor have Medicaid, and our elderly have Medicare. It is the great middle class that is overlooked and ignored.
Like the civil rights legislation, some have called health care reform a government takeover or a government intrusion into personal life. But extending access to quality, affordable health care to all Americans is no less than the expansion of the principle of equal opportunity on which this nation was founded. It moves us closer to the ideals on which this country has thrived.
Shortly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a popular Republican politician warned, “Our natural, inalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment.”
The grim prophecies of Ronald Reagan, and those who shared his concerns, never materialized.
Instead, today it is unquestioned that the color of one’s skin or the context of one’s birth has no bearing on the opportunity to succeed in our society. That is because of the Civil Rights Act.
With the vote of the House on Sunday and the signature of the president on Tuesday, we have similarly brought a fundamental shift to how our country views the delivery of health care.
My father’s efforts — from Medicare to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, from the Americans With Disabilities Act to Community Health Centers — were driven by his belief that the amount and quality of care that people receive should not be a function of their income. It is appalling and inexplicable that we are the only major industrialized nation in the world that does not have a national health service or national health insurance.
Health care is not only a civil rights issue. It is a moral issue. It is about the content of the character of our country. Now, the onus is on the U.S. Senate, that institution my father so dearly loved, to pass the Reconciliation Act and complete the great unfinished business of our society.
Patrick Kennedy is a Democratic member of Congress from Rhode Island.