Which is "harder": social science or physical science?
Romney and Culture Wars

Is health or health care a public concern, a right, or a need?

Mark D. White

One of the topics that fascinates me, but which I never seem to have time to catch up on, is the moral/political status of health and health care. In most cases (other than particularly infectious or contagious diseases), I consider health and health care to be matters of personal choice and responsibility, but I'm eager to hear the arguments on the other side as well.

JLMETwo articles in the latest issue of The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics (40/2, Summer 2012), part of a symposium on pharmaceutical firms and the right to health, address this issue:

"Health as a Basic Human Need: Would This Be Enough?" by Thana Cristina de Campos

Although the value of health is universally agreed upon, its definition is not. Both the WHO and the UN define health in terms of well-being. They advocate a globally shared responsibility that all of us — states, international organizations, pharmaceutical corporations, civil society, and individuals — bear for the health (that is, the well-being) of the world's population. In this paper I argue that this current well-being conception of health is troublesome. Its problem resides precisely in the fact that the well-being conception of health, as an all-encompassing label, does not properly distinguish between the different realities of health and the different demands of justice, which arise in each case. In addressing responsibilities related to the right to health, we need to work with a more differentiated vocabulary, which can account for these different realities. A crucial distinction to bear in mind, for the purposes of moral deliberation and the crafting of political and legal institutions, is the difference between basic and non-basic health needs. This distinction is crucial because we have presumably more stringent obligations and rights in relation to human needs that are basic, as they justify stronger moral claims, than those grounded on non-basic human needs. It is important to keep this moral distinction in mind because many of the world's problems regarding the right to health relate to basic health needs. By conflating these needs with less essential ones, we risk confusing different types of moral claims and weakening the overall case for establishing duties regarding the right to health. There is, therefore, a practical need to reevaluate the current normative conception of health so that it distinguishes, within the broad scope of well-being, etween what is basic and what is not. My aim here is to shed light onto this distinction and to show the need for this differentiation. I do so, first, by providing, on the basis of David Miller's concept of basic needs, an account of basic health needs and, secondly, by mounting a defense of the basic needs approach to the right to health, arguing against James Griffin who opposes the basic needs approach.

"A Right to Health Care" by Pavlos Eleftheriadis

What does it mean to say that there is a right to health care? Health care is part of a cooperative project that organizes finite resources. How are these resources to be distributed? This essay discusses three rival theories. The first two, a utilitarian theory and an interst theory, are both instrumental, in that they collapse rights to good states of affairs. A third theory, offered by Thomas Pogge, locates the question within an institutional legal context and distinguishes between a right to health care that results in claimable duties and other dimensions of health policy that do not. Pogge's argument relies on a list of “basic needs,” which itself, however, relies on some kind of instrumental reasoning. The essay offers a reconstruction of Pogge's argument to bring it in line with a political conception of a right to health care. Health is a matter of equal liberty and equal citizenship, given our common human vulnerability. If we are to live as equal members in a political community, then our institutions need to create processes by which we are protected from the kinds of suffering that would make it impossible for us to live as equal members.

CoggonBut what I most look forward to reading is What Makes Health Public?: A Critical Evaluation of Moral, Legal, and Political Claims in Public Health by John Coggon, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to at the "Regulating Bodies and Influencing Health" symposium in Rotterdam in June.

John Coggon argues that the important question for analysts in the fields of public health law and ethics is 'what makes health public?' He offers a conceptual and analytic scrutiny of the salient issues raised by this question, outlines the concepts entailed in, or denoted by, the term 'public health' and argues why and how normative analyses in public health are inquiries in political theory. The arguments expose and explain the political claims inherent in key works in public health ethics. Coggon then develops and defends a particular understanding of political liberalism, describing its implications for critical study of public health policies and practices. Covering important works from legal, moral, and political theory, public health, public health law and ethics, and bioethics, this is a foundational text for scholars, practitioners and policy bodies interested in freedoms, rights and responsibilities relating to health.


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Mark, You might find some of the titles in this compilation from several years ago of interest (it's since been updated a tad so if you want that version I can send it): http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/11/health-law-ethics-social-justice-basic.html

Thanks, Patrick!


I'm going to send you something I wrote about a decade ago: a definition of sorts for public health law (I haven't yet read Coggon's book) and set aside and am wondering if it's worth revising.

Sure thing!

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