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  • Writer's pictureSasha Lawrence

Is Health a Right?

Health as a human right has been debated for almost a century. The WHO defined health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" (WHO). However, each member state that makes up the WHO builds its health system differently. Though health systems are constructed differently, health should be a right.


The right to health has many components. There are rights to underlying determinants of health like safe water and sanitation, safe food, proper nutrition and housing, safe working conditions, health education, and gender equality. There are freedom rights in the right to health. These are rights to be free from non-consensual medical treatments, experimentation, research, sterilization, torture, and inhuman treatment. There is the entitlement component to the right to health. This is the right to equitable health, treatment and control of diseases, access to essential medicines, maternal and reproductive health, access to basic health services, and participation in health-related decision-making. There is also the right to nondiscrimination in the right to health. There is also a right to the accessibility of health. This is the right to public health and health facilities, physical accessibility for all population types, ethical and culturally acceptable facilities, and facilities and services that are scientifically and medically appropriate (WHO).


A discussion of health as a right starts with ethics and morals. Moral ethics and philosophy can be used for decisions regarding healthcare reform (Roberts). As someone with a more egalitarian worldview, health is a right. An egalitarian believer is a follower of the liberal school of thought. That health is a human right, and a minimum level of healthcare is needed. Society is obliged to ensure proper health for all humans. The government is responsible for a minimum level of quality of life (Roberts).


The government can protect and promote health rights in two ways: negative rights and positive rights. Positive rights are more prominent in terms of benefiting health. The general definition of positive rights is that there are fundamental human rights to certain goods, and the government is obligated to provide everyone with those goods. This is done through taxation and redistribution of income. The extent of what is considered a right is a widely debated topic (Bradley). Negative rights are the protection of freedoms for an individual. The right to choose what is best for their health without infringement is a significant component of the right to health. The right to privacy and the right to use contraception, the right to reproductive decisions and abortions, the right to medical refusal, and the right to autonomy are also negative rights components of the right to health (Holstein) (Bradley) (Hamel). Negative rights struggle to succeed and need to be supported by positive rights. This is because to achieve the WHO definition of health, basic health goods are a necessity. Many people across the world and in America cannot afford these basic goods; therefore, it is the responsibility of the government and society to provide these goods. For example, the right to choose to use contraceptives. If one cannot afford or attain contraceptives, they do not have a choice. They are forced into choosing not to use it. Therefore, for the negative right of that choice to work, there needs to be a provision of contraceptives or health infrastructure to better access contraceptives so every population group can have the right to choose whether or not they want them.


There are reasons one would say health is not a right. Some moral thinkers believe health needs to be focused at the societal level instead of the individual level and that the most good needs to be done for the most people. This aligns with an objective utilitarianism ethical standpoint. The guarantee of health as a right puts extensive strain on the health system. The cost of the right to health is astronomical and would have to be paid for through increased taxation. Many would argue that it is not their responsibility to provide for others. An objective utilitarian makes data-driven decisions. This means that they look at healthcare cost analysis and make health decisions based on the data. The other issue that could arise from assuring health as a right is the decreased quality of the overall health system. This is because health resources are limited, and providing them to everyone decreases the amount of help they can provide. This is seen in Brazil's hospitals. Their complex case and surgical wait times can take years because they do not have the resources to meet demand. This is why an objective utilitarian would say that healthcare needs to be focused on providing the best care for as many people as possible, instead of spreading the system thin and providing poor healthcare for everyone.


Though the cost of guaranteeing health as a right is high, a healthier workforce will be able to do more work for more years. This should, in turn, increase long-term economic output, which helps offset the costs of the right to health. Also, the detriment of a lack of a right to health is extremely high. This is seen in the US. The US has the best healthcare that someone can buy. However, the US fails in many aspects of health which have other detriments. With healthcare quality tied to salary, people working lower-salary jobs have lower-quality health coverage. This means that lower-salaried people who experience health issues will have to pay more out of pocket or sacrifice healthcare altogether. Fifty percent of bankruptcies in the US are due to healthcare costs. This is an absurd number for the wealthiest country in the world. The problem is exacerbated when looking at the disparity of this problem. Minority populations are several times more likely to receive worse healthcare and pay more for their healthcare. This is due to centuries of discriminatory laws that have placed them in worse economic conditions than most Americans. Because the US does not consider health a right, these populations feel the residual effects of previous discrimination on their health today.


Health is a human right. This is because health is a determining factor in a quality life. The suffering caused by a lack of health is harmful to society. Health as a right has a wide range of benefits as it affects every individual's daily life. The recognition of health as a right has been a growing movement globally and continues to expand.


Sasha Lawrence is a 3rd Year student at the University of Virginia.

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