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Human rights and bioethics
  1. Y M Barilan1,3,
  2. M Brusa2,3
  1. 1
    Department of Medical Education, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel
  2. 2
    St John's University, Philadelphia, USA
  3. 3
    Erasmus Mundus Master of Bioethics, University of Padua, Institute of Catholic Bioethics, Padua, Italy
  1. Y M Barilan, Department of Medical Education, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel; ymbarilan{at}


In the first part of this article we survey the concept of human rights from a philosophical perspective and especially in relation to the “right to healthcare”. It is argued that regardless of meta-ethical debates on the nature of rights, the ethos and language of moral deliberation associated with human rights is indispensable to any ethics that places the victim and the sufferer in its centre.

In the second part we discuss the rise of the “right to privacy”, particularly in the USA, as an attempt to make the element of personal free will dominate over the element of basic human interest within the structure of rights and when different rights seem to conflict.

We conclude by discussing the relationship of human rights with moral values beyond the realm of rights, mainly human dignity, free will, human rationality and response to basic human needs.

  • human rights
  • bioethics
  • right to healthcare
  • privacy

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  • Competing interests: None.

  • i The reader is advised not to confuse two different meanings of the word “positive”. In the first usage in this paper, “positive” is opposed to “natural”; whereas now the very same word is employed with a completely different meaning – “positive”, meaning active action, as opposed to “negative”, meaning inaction.

  • ii For a somewhat middle position claiming relatively varying levels of strong positive rights within sovereign states and a “minimal humanitarian morality” governing all people see Nagel.9

  • iii Compare this to Kramer’s discussion of pollution and immunity in order to realise the difference between legal and moral rights, and between ordinary industry and health damages brought on people by biomedicine. Considerations of enforcement, tort and criminal law regarding observance and violations of rights often involve considerations separate from the authority, structure and content of moral rights.13

  • iv Consider what Zubiri calls “the power of reality”, Heidegger’s Dassein, Levinas’ the Other, Jaspers’ the Transcendence etc. Rawls, for example, refers to the “sentiment” of morality as a kind of special power. 23 24

  • v Ethics is founded on the assumption that rights and human primary goods never apriori collide with each other and conflicts among rights are mere circumstantial accidents. See Barilan supra. This point addresses Steiner’s concern with the “compossibility” of interest-rights. 25 26

  • vi By this choice of words, the court begged the question whether the fetus has a right to life.

  • vii A legal right may have only one of these elements. For a recent and comprehensive discussion of this issue as well as the Hohfeldian paradigm. “The nature of rights” see Wenar30 who discusses neither bioethical questions, nor the “right to privacy”.

  • viii Since 1973 the legal situation of abortion in America is of a kind of “negative right”.32

  • ix See more on these issues in articles by Dworkin in The New York Review of Books, 13 Aug 1993 and 31 May 2007.

  • x We are careful not to raise meta-ethical claims regarding either self-evident moral truths or intuitionism. A moral appeal is a motivating moral sentiment such as empathy or a primae facie rational consideration, a considered judgment in terms of reflective equilibrium.33

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