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A Right to Health Care

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2021


Do we have a legal and moral right to health care against others? There are international conventions and institutions that say emphatically yes, and they summarize this in the expression of “the right to health,” which is an established part of the international human rights canon. The International Covenant on Social and Economic Rights outlines this as “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” but declarations such as this remain tragically unfulfilled. According to recent figures, roughly two billion people lack access to essential drugs or to primary health care. Millions are afflicted by infections and illnesses that are easily avoidable or treatable. In the developing world many children die or grow stunted and damaged for lack of available treatments. Tropical diseases receive little or no attention by the major pharmaceutical companies’ research departments. Is this a massive violation of the right to health? And if so, why does it attract so little attention? Is it because our supposed commitment to human rights and the rule of law is hypocritical and hollow? Or is it because the right to health is a special case of a right, so that these tragedies are no violation at all? Jennifer Prah Ruger summarized this puzzle when she wrote: “one would be hard pressed to find a more controversial or nebulous human right than the right to health.” In this essay I discuss three different theories of a right to health care. I conclude by offering my own reconstruction of one such theory.

Copyright © American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics 2012

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