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Medical student essay
Positive rights, negative rights and health care
  1. Andrew Bradley
  1. University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
  1. Correspondence to Andrew Bradley, 1020 Island Drive Court Apartment 101, Ann Arbor, MI 48105, USA; ajbrad{at}umich.edu

Abstract

In the current debate about healthcare reform in the USA, advocates for government-ensured universal coverage assume that health care is a right. Although this position is politically popular, it is sometimes challenged by a restricted view of rights popular with libertarians and individualists. The restricted view of rights only accepts ‘negative’ rights as legitimate rights. Negative rights, the argument goes, place no obligations on you to provide goods to other people and thus respect your right to keep the fruits of your labour. A classic enumeration of negative rights includes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Positive rights, by contrast, obligate you either to provide goods to others, or pay taxes that are used for redistributive purposes. Health care falls into the category of positive rights since its provision by the government requires taxation and therefore redistribution. Therefore, the libertarian or individualist might argue that health care cannot be a true right. This paper rejects the distinction between positive and negative rights. In fact, the protection of both positive and negative rights can place obligations on others. Furthermore, because of its role in helping protect equality of opportunity, health care can be tied to the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is, therefore, good reason to believe that health care is a human right and that universal access should be guaranteed. The practical application, by governments and non-governmental organisations, of several of the arguments presented in this paper is also discussed.

  • access and evaluation
  • allocation of healthcare resources
  • healthcare quality
  • healthcare reform
  • human rights
  • indigents
  • politics
  • quality/value of life/personhood
  • universal coverage

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Footnotes

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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