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health care is not a human right

Health care is not a human right

Editor—The Tavistock Group has invited comments on its document on shared ethical principles.1 I would challenge its first major principle—that health care is a human right.

A human right is a moral right of paramount importance applicable to every human being. There are several reasons why health care should not be considered a human right.

Firstly, health care is difficult to define. It clearly encompasses preventive care (for example, immunisation), public health measures, health promotion, and medical and surgical treatment of established illness. Is the so called human right to health care a right to basic provision of clean water and adequate food, or does everyone in the world have a right to organ transplantation, cosmetic surgery, infertility treatment, and the most expensive medicine? For something to count as a human right the minimum requirement should surely be that the right in question is capable of definition.

Secondly, all rights possessed by an individual imply a duty on the part of others. Thus the right to a fair trial imposes a duty on the prosecuting authority to be fair. On whom does the duty to provide health care to all the world’s citizens fall? Is it a duty on individual doctors, or hospital authorities, or governments, or only rich governments? It is difficult to see how any provision of benefits can be termed a human right (as opposed to a legal entitlement) when to meet such a requirement would impose an intolerable burden on others.

Thirdly, the philosophical basis of all human rights has always been shaky. Liberalism and humanism, the dominant philosophies of Western democracies, require human rights. Religion requires a God, but this is not in itself evidence of God’s existence. Most people can see some advantage in maintaining the concept of civil and political rights, but it is difficult to find any rational or utilitarian basis for viewing health care in the same way.

To propose that health care be considered a human right is not only wrong headed, it is unhelpful. Mature debate on the rationing and sharing of limited resources can hardly take place when citizens start from the premise that health care is their right, like a fair trial or the right to vote. I suspect that the proponents of the notion think that to claim health care as a human right adds some kind of weight or authority to the idea that health care, and by extension healthcare professionals, is important. A more humble approach would achieve more in the long run.

Go to:

1. Smith R, Hiatt H, Berwick D. Shared ethical principles for everybody in health care: a working draft from the Tavistock Group. BMJ. 1999;318:248–251. . (23 January.) [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

DMU Timestamp: November 27, 2019 01:26

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