The right to good health is a human right

The right to good health is a right enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration is a statement of principles rather than a binding obligation; the United Nations cannot force any signator to pass these rights into law. Thus the United States does not recognize good health as a human right, to Americans’ detriment.

There are two aspects to achieving and maintaining good health, self care and medical care. Obviously the state cannot ensure everyone’s health, nor can states provide protection against every possible cause of ill health like genetic risk factors or unhealthy lifestyles. The right to health must be understood as a right to a standard of living conducive to health and well-being, and to health care access regardless of one’s ability to pay.

Let’s focus on medical care. So, what if there is no legal right to good health? There surely is a right to good government. We expect governments to provide necessities like public education, infrastructure, environmental protection etc. Good health is surely just as important. Shouldn’t this justify the creation of a public health care system?

The typical objection to a call for public health care is that it would cost too much – “who is going to pay for this?” The simple answer to that objection is that countries with publicly funded health care systems spend half as much on medical care as the U.S. and yet have better outcomes. Private sector medical care is profitable, and patients pay the price. In fact, in the United States medical debt is the single largest cause of personal bankruptcies.

Of course, the right to a living standard conducive to good health is just as important as the right to medical treatment. Healthier living conditions will actually reduce the incidence of lifestyle diseases and therefore the financial burden on the health care system. But that is a topic for another post. Let me leave you with this thought:

“A health system is the most visible and tangible expression of a society’s concern for the welfare and well-being of its citizens.”