Human Rights and the "Other"

Credit: International Network of Liberal Women
In recent weeks, Human Rights Watch and Bill Gates released two reports on global poverty and the most pressing rights struggles of 2013. In Davos, some of the highest-earning and most powerful leaders of the world convened for the World Economic Forum.

Yet, as I live my life here in Paris, having completed a Master's degree focusing on human rights at the end of last year while at the same time undergoing a heart surgery, I contemplate what human rights means to me personally versus others. How much overlap is there between developing versus developed nations? How can I fully live within and access my own rights in a country that is not even my own? What I have come up with as I train in the park near my pink cottage, sending resume after resume, networking, flying to Rome to be with my French boyfriend who works for the United Nations and is also seeking long-term employment in his own country, trying to build the rest of a dream after significant resiliency most of my life, is how blurred the line is between those in need of accessing and fully realizing human rights standards. These are the people I love, live near, and work alongside.

The past few days the American news has been shaped by an announcement that AOL had reversed a decision regarding 401ks to its employees after a media frenzy regarding CEO Tim Armstrong's comment that,
Two things that happened in 2012. We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost. So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased healthcare costs, we made the decision, and I made the decision, to basically change the 401(k) plan.
The mother of the "distressed baby," Novelist Deanna Fei, published an eloquent and very brave response to her husband's employer in Slate magazine. Her husband, Peter S. Goodman, is the Executive Business and and Global News Editor of AOL's Huffington Post. The Goodmans are known to me because Arnold and Elise Goodman, the grandparents of the "distressed baby" girl, were the couple who gave me very my first job in publishing when I was nineteen years old. I worked from their home as their Literary Agency Assistant, and the position was a lifelong dream for this rural girl from a chaotic childhood with little resources earning and financing my undergraduate degree in Manhattan. I filed their contracts, letters to their children, answered their phone calls from the authors of the What to Expect When You're Expecting series, sent out rejection letters, and learned about publishing from two people who had made a wonderful life from it. They had a beautiful apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, two wonderful children, and to my young eyes they were living the good life.

Enter the life of their own grandchild. As an advocate for children's health, I was aghast reading the AOL CEO's comment but was not surprised. The state of healthcare in my own country is one of the most brutal abuses of rights in a wealthy and developed nation that exists. So is the cost of education. Enter where I live currently so as to actually complete a Master's degree before I turned 35. When I had my heart surgery last year, I was also a student who paid nothing to have that surgery. I had suffered from supraventricular tachycardia since I was seventeen years old but still went on to race ultramarathons and build running teams in support of women and children's health. But around the end of 2012, as my hormones shifted and I worked freelance while earning my degree and trained teams of ex-pat runners, I began to have heart episodes much more frequently. When my sisters' were visiting me last March and I looked up at my baby sister's worried face sprawled on a Parisian sidewalk in full-on tachycardia, I began to think the time had come to fix my heart. Then I read online that when I am pregnant someday my baby would also go without oxygen and experience the same horrendous effects I did when the tachycardia occurred plus it could affect the child's development; I knew it was time to have heart surgery.

I made an appointment with a cardiologist, my school's health assistant, and within a few months (and incredible work), I had my heart surgery scheduled for the day I was supposed to have walked the stage for my biggest dream, my graduate degree. Again, I paid nothing for my surgery. I was a freelancing student who paid nothing for my heart surgery, Americans. And, things went wrong on the table. They found the problem of my heart to be very, very rare because it was located in the core of my heart not on the outside of it, making the procedure much more risky and longer than had previously thought, and, of course, more expensive. Still, lying on that table my only worry was whether or not I would end up with a pacemaker as a 34 year-old endurance athlete. Money was not a concern, because I knew that I would pay nothing, in spite of my condition being worse than ever diagnosed. Not every part of the French health system process was easy or the procedure seamless, but my heart is healthier than ever before.

In 2011, I worked at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for an international public health project funded by USAID. I ran Comrades 2010 and 2011, with a heart problem, advocating for women and children's health and went on to do my Master's focusing on public policy and international law. I studied at Oxford University one month after my heart surgery where my sole focus was on my health and my studies, not on any doctor's bills. I wish I could say the same for my younger sister's father who almost died when hundreds of blood clots filled his body, and remains in debt two years later in spite of having health insurance at the time.

The Goodmans' story of fighting for their daughter's life is not an exceptional case among examples of American healthcare system failures. But, they are not the perceived "other" either. They are a family living in a developed nation with healthcare and yet they are still struggling to access basic rights. They are not the ravaged women of Congo who deserve safety from rampant rape. Or the dying children in Syria whose lives are mutilated by the war that Peter Goodman wrote about from Davos. They are just two parents who had the resources to tell their story about how challenging it has become to access healthcare and to force quick change to horrendous corporate policy. And, the baby girl's father happened to be born from the parents of the very people who gave me my first chance a long time ago.

We are all in some way or shape attempting to live our lives with dignity and with access to our basic human rights. Their story--all of the stories I read and write about women, children, and families all over the world trying to do the same--strengthen my belief in what is our global community. And, it proves that everyone, everywhere deserves to live and access universal human rights. Because there is no "other." There is only us.