What is health as a human right?


In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) proposed in his “Second Bill of Rights,” that every person, “regardless of station, race, or creed,” has “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” [1]. Though FDR did not live to witness it, his declaration for social and economic justice was enshrined in the 1946 Constitution of the World Health Organization which states that health “is one of the fundamental rights of every human being” [2], and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes FDR’s words verbatim on the basic right to medical care, health, and wellbeing [3]. These documents affirm that health is a human right—that health care is a public good, not a private commodity.

 However, in the United States today, it is clear that FDR’s vision has not come close to fruition. Access to affordable and quality health care remains a privilege. While the hard-fought passage of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) has made significant progress, reducing the number of uninsured individuals by an estimated 20 million, expanding Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) eligibility criteria, and combatting health inequities amongst women and persons of color, the ACA’s critical shortcoming lies in its preservation of the principle of health care as a commodity. Rather than advancing a principle of universal access to medical services, it bolsters the private health insurance market structure to increase coverage at limited levels. While the ACA is indubitably a critical step forward, greater attention must be given to advancing the principle of health as a right. According to the latest 2014 census data, 32 million Americans still do not have health insurance, millions more are partly uninsured, and those uninsured are disproportionately poor, black, and Hispanic [4]

 Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic class or background, health is necessary for a life with dignity, and therefore, it is, by the words of the WHO Constitution, “a fundamental, inalienable human right” [5]. Access to health care is an essential cornerstone of social and economic justice, and the United States must join other industrialized nations in providing its citizens access to a life with dignity.