By Charlene Galarneau, PhD, MAR, Associate Professor, Wellesley College
Johns Hopkins University Press, Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, February 2018
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
These often-invoked words attributed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offer moral sustenance to many persons working toward health equity today. Scholars, practitioners, and activists in health care and in public health commonly quote this powerful claim thus aligning the health equity movement with the civil rights movement. Yet, these words are not the precise words that King spoke more than a half century ago.
On March 25, 1966 in Chicago at a press conference before his speech at the second convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), King said (in part):
“We are concerned about the constant use of federal funds to support this most notorious expression of segregation. Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.
“I see no alternative to direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation.”
This documented quote (second sentence) differs from the more common “quote” in three striking ways. First, King spoke of injustice in “health,” not in health care. While it is impossible to know whether there was a meaningful difference between health and health care for King, his unfailing attention to poverty, racism, education, and housing—what we now often call social determinants of health—makes clear his moral concern beyond health care alone. Second, King said that injustice in health is “inhuman,” not inhumane. The distinction here is likely significant as a matter of degree. Inhumane suggests a lack of compassion for human suffering or pain whereas “inhuman” is more extreme, suggesting a denial of humanity so egregiously cruel that it is, or should be, beyond human action. The final difference in King’s actual words compared with the more popular version is perhaps the most important as it reveals King’s belief about why health injustice is inhuman. Injustice in health is “the most inhuman” form of inequality, says King, “because it often results in physical death.” King could not be plainer: human lives end because of this injustice. Death, as one of the most brutal consequences of radicalized injustice, is erased from King’s words by the exclusion of this phrase.
The ubiquity of King’s words today (in whatever form) reflects not only their rhetorical power, but also King’s abiding moral authority. The 21st century legacy of King’s gift of these words is that we have a social responsibility to “raise the conscience of the nation” so as to end this shocking and inhuman injustice.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
To repeat, “we have a social responsibility to ‘raise the conscience of the nation’ so as to end this shocking and inhuman injustice.”
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