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Ethics briefings
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  1. Veronica English,
  2. Gillian Romano-Critchley,
  3. Ann Sommerville,
  4. Jessica Gardner
  1. Medical Ethics Department, British Medical Association

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    International debate about ‘the right to health’

    All international statements of human rights comprise a mixture of liberty rights (such as freedom of expression, freedom from unjustified arrest or detention) and positive claims to social support. In general, the latter have received far less attention than the former although this now seems set to change. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights included “the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing, including food … medical care and necessary social services” (article 25). In the ensuing fifty years, however, this human right rarely seemed to be centre-stage even though it was reflected in the constitution of the World Health Organization (itself a specialised agency of the UN) which famously defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

    One of the reasons for the apparent dismissal of the notion of a right to health in much previous ethical debate has been that while such a right is clearly a good thing, what is actually entailed, whether it is practically deliverable and from whom has long remained unclear. Now, however, concrete guidance is gradually emerging, leading to increased emphasis on this area of human rights, not just by specialised human rights lawyers and pressure groups but also by ethicists and medical organisations. The Commonwealth Medical Association, working with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recently completed a report on the meaning and content of “the right to health”. The British Medical Association (BMA) has also recently compiled a major report on how the interface between medicine and human rights is changing, devoting much attention to the right to health, a right to a minimum standard of health care and the concept of an ethical duty to respond to need.1

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