Right To Health

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The phrase "right to health" is not a familiar one, although the constitution of the World Health Organization and a number of international human rights treaties recognize the right to the "highest attainable standard" of health. Although enunciated in these international documents, the scope and meaning of the "right to health" as a human right is only gradually being clarified.

Approaching health issues through a rights perspective adds an important dimension to consideration of health status, emphasizing the link of health status to issues of dignity, nondiscrimination, justice, and participation, as these aspects are embodied in principles underlying all international human rights.

A rights-based perspective on health can be seen as reflecting the following elements of all rights and applying them to health status issues:

  • Conceptualizing something as a right emphasizes its exceptional importance as a social or public goal.
  • Rights concepts focus on the dignity of persons.
  • Equality or nondiscrimination is a fundamental principle of human rights.
  • Participation of individuals and groups is an essential aspect of human rights.
  • The concept of rights implies entitlement.
  • Rights are interdependent.
  • Rights are almost never absolute and may be limited, but such limitations should be subject to strict scrutiny.
  • The dignity of all must be respected, in particular the dignity of society's most vulnerable: the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, disabled persons, and the mentally handicapped.

While it is difficult to provide evidence that there should be a right to health, more practical would be the right to the opportunity to achieve good health. But even that is complexattaining good health requires social, economic, and environmental support, which in turn provide the opportunity for good health. A key factor in realizing the opportunity for health is the right to health care.

John H. Bryant

(see also: Access to Health Services; Equity and Resource Allocation; Ethics of Public Health )


Gostin, L., and Mann, J. (1994). "Towards Development of a Human Rights Impact Assessment for the Formulation and Evaluation of Public Health Policies." Health and Human Rights 1:59.

Leary, V. (1994). "The Right to Health in International Human Rights Law." Health and Human Rights 1:28.