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Apples, oranges and zebras, oh my!

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Kathleen Parker
March 28, 2012
— By now you’ve heard it plenty: The Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka “Obamacare,” is like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This creative bit of dot-connecting began with President Obama and has been perpetuated by countless talk-show hosts and their guests.

By implication, to oppose Obamacare is tantamount to opposing civil rights, which, roughly translated in this country, means being racist. This may not be what Obama intended, but if not, it was accidental brilliance.


On “Hardball” this week, as Chris Matthews was cross-examining a guest about the constitutionality of the insurance mandate—the main issue before the Supreme Court—he asked whether she thought the Civil Rights Act was constitutional. After all, that piece of legislation (correctly) forced businesses to sell goods and services to people they otherwise might have chosen to deny access.


This would be a dandy argument if the two issues were remotely related. Yes, they are similar inasmuch as the federal government imposed laws on individuals related to personal decision-making. And yes, those decisions revolved around commerce. But zebras and dogs are also similar—they both have four legs and a tail—and yet we know they are not the same animal.


The health care mandate forces business and individuals to buy something against their will. The mandate facilitates access to health care the same way being pushed off a diving board facilitates swimming. It may prove effective—or not—but it shouldn’t be confused with civil rights.

One may firmly believe that any government program aimed at improving health care for more people is defensible. At least some Americans apparently do, but not that many. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Americans oppose the law by 52-41 percent. And 67 percent believe the Supreme Court should toss the law or at least the mandatory portion.


This is hardly a national endorsement of Obama’s health plan. Nor, however, should it be construed as permission for Republicans to continue pretending that the American health care system doesn’t require any government attention, as they did until Democrats seized the issue.


The problem of access to affordable health care is nothing to shrug about. By all means, let’s work toward making an exceptionally good system better—but without the pandering shibboleth of health care reform as a civil rights issue. One dealt with discrimination on the basis of race and was a clear violation of human rights and, therefore, the spirit of the Constitution.


Guaranteeing access to purchase is far different than forcing purchase.


That some can’t afford insurance or are denied coverage through unemployment surely can be addressed in other, more creative ways. Americans love the portability aspect of Obamacare, but this could have been accomplished without restructuring a huge swath of the economy based largely on projections and assumptions.


As a selfish human being, I want everyone to buy insurance. I also want nearly everyone to drop 20 pounds, exercise 45 minutes daily, abstain from drugs and cigarettes, drink no more than five ounces of red wine daily, get eight hours of sleep, eat a diet of mostly grains and vegetables and avoid all sugars. This would do more to improve health and reduce the need for medical care than anything else on the planet. Shouldn’t we start there? Doesn’t it violate my civil rights to have to subsidize the consequences of other people’s irresponsible choices and lack of discipline?


Ah, but no, government can’t dictate what people consume or how much they exercise. Wanna bet? Stick around.


Critics of Obama’s plan are not just ornery partisans. Legitimate concerns include: The law is too big, it creates another gargantuan bureaucracy that will have the flexibility and compassion of Siri, and it contains too many uncertainties and too many fill-in-the-blanks beyond the reach of elected officials.


Democrats pushed through the legislation without popular support on the bet that Americans would like it once they got used to it. We may or may not find out, depending on what the justices decide. But this much we do know: Civil rights activists who were beaten, bloodied and killed in the struggle to have a voice were nothing like the bureaucrats and politicians who insist that the ACA is a comparable victory. The Civil Rights Act was a monument to freedom and human dignity. Health care reform is … something else.


Well intentioned though it may be—and serviceable though it could become with proper tweaking—the ACA is not about human freedom. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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