I wrote in my Sunday column about my uninsured college roommate, Scott Androes, and his battle with Stage 4 prostate cancer <WC>—<WC1> and a dysfunctional American health care system. I was taken aback by how many readers were savagely unsympathetic.
"Your friend made a foolish choice, and actions have consequences," one reader said in a Twitter message.
As my column noted, Scott had a midlife crisis and left his job in the pension industry to read books and play poker, surviving on part-time work (last year, he earned $13,000). To save money, he skipped health insurance.
A year ago, he encountered difficulties urinating and didn't see a doctor in part because of the cost. By the time the prostate cancer was detected, it had spread to his bones.
"I blew it," Scott told me several times.<WC> <WC1>He repeatedly acknowledged that he should have bought insurance and should have seen a doctor as soon as his symptoms appeared.
Scott showed immense courage in telling his story. He worried that his legacy would be an unflattering article spotlighting his foolishness, yet he went ahead for two reasons. First, he said that readers might learn from his mistakes and call a doctor about that suspicious lump or mole. (If that's you, do it now!) Second, he said he hoped that his story would help readers see the need for universal health care, so that others wouldn't suffer as he has.
That's in part what this election is about. If President Barack Obama is re-elected, Obamacare will stay in place and health insurance will become close to universal in 2014. In contrast, Mitt Romney has promised if elected to work to repeal Obamacare <WC>—<WC1> and any American who made a bad health care decision would continue to suffer.
To many of my readers, that's fine.
"Not sure why I'm to feel guilty about your friend's problem," Terry from Oregon wrote on my blog. "I take care of myself and mine, and I am not responsible for anyone else."
Bruce wrote that many people in hospitals are there because of their own poor choices: "Smoking, obesity, drugs, alcohol, noncompliance with medical advice. Extreme age and debility, patients so sick, old, demented, weak, that if families had to pay one-tenth the cost of keeping the poor souls alive, they would instantly see that it was money wasted."
That harsh view is gaining ground, particularly on the right. Pew Research Center polling has found that the proportion of Republicans who agree that "it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves" has slipped from 58 percent in 2007 to just 40 percent today.
Let me offer two counterarguments.
First, a civilized society compensates for the human propensity to screw up. That's why we have single-payer firefighters and police officers. That's why we require seat belts. When someone who has been speeding gets in a car accident, the 911 operator doesn't sneer: "You were irresponsible, so figure out your own way to hospital" — and hang up.
To err is human, but so is to forgive. Living in a community means being interconnected in myriad ways — including by empathy. To feel undiminished by the deaths of those around us isn't heroic Ayn Rand individualism. It's sociopathic. Compassion isn't a sign of weakness but of civilization.