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.




Human rights are universal and inalienable. All people everywhere in the world are entitled to them. Everyone must have access to equal high-quality and comprehensive health care. 


Resources and services must be distributed and accessed according to people's needs. We get what we need and give what we can. 


The health care system must be accountable to the people it serves.


The health care system must be open with regard to information, decision-making, and management.


The health care system must enable meaningful public participation in all decisions affecting people's right to health care.

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Health Care in the United States

  • U.S. health care spending is more than twice the average of other developed countries. 

    •  The United States spends more on health care than any other developed country in the world. OECD data shows that the U.S. spent 17.1% of its GDP on health care in 2013. This was almost 50% more than the next highest spender (France, 11.6% of GDP) and almost double what was spent in the U.K. (8.8%). U.S. spending per capita was equivalent to $9,086 [1] [2].

  • Since 1980, the gap has widened between U.S. health spending and that of other countries.

    • Over the past four decades, the difference between health spending as a share of the economy in the U.S. and comparable OECD countries has widened. In 1970 the U.S. spent about 7% of its GDP on health [3].
  • While the U.S. has similar public spending, its private sector spending is triple that of comparable countries. 

    • In 2012 the US spent about 8% of its GDP on health out of public funds – essentially equivalent to the average of the other eleven comparable OECD countries. However, private spending in the U.S. is much higher than any comparable country – 9% of GDP in the U.S., compared to 3% on average for other nations [4].

  • Health care prices are higher in the U.S. compared to other countries. 

    • Hospital and physician prices for procedures are higher in the U.S. than other countries.

    • 2013 data published by the International Federation of Health Plans show that the average price of bypass surgery was $75,345 in the U.S. This is more than $30,000 higher than in the second-highest country, Australia, where the procedure costs $42,130. According to the same data source, MRI and CT scans were also most expensive in the U.S. While these pricing data are subject to significant methodological limitations, they illustrate a pattern of significantly higher prices in many areas of U.S. health care [6].

      Other studies have observed high U.S. prices for pharmaceuticals. A 2013 investigation by Kanavos and colleagues created a cross-national price index for a basket of widely used in-patent pharmaceuticals. In 2010, all countries studied had lower prices than the U.S. In Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, prices were about 50 percent lower [5].

  • Despite spending the most on health care, the U.S. has inferior health outcomes. 

    • Life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is lower than in other developed countries, despite higher health care costs. 

    • The U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate among OECD countries.

    • The prevalence of chronic diseases are higher in the U.S. than in other comparable countries [6].

  • Though the Patient Care and Affordable Care Act (ACA) has reduced the number of Americans uninsured, it still has many shortcomings.

    • The ACA has reduced the number of individuals uninsured by 20 million . 

    • However, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that even by 2019, 23 million people will still be uninsured, after full implementation of the law. 

    • Many people are left out--even those insured are often underinsured, not all needed care is accessible, and many cannot afford to get the care they need [7]


How can youth push forward health as a human right? 


Youth power nearly 40% of the world's population, and our voices matter. The decisions policy makers make today impact our lives in the present and the future. We as young people have the power to inform public policy-making, and it is important that we exercise our rights. Becoming a registered voter is the first step. Voting and asking your elected representatives to represent the causes and policies that matter to you are rights you should exercise. Your voice matters. Vote. 




Our vote is our voice in our government. If we want elected representatives in office who represent our needs and concerns, we need to vote. The right to vote wasn't always a given--we fought and died for the right to vote--so that those historically disenfranchised--people of color, women, and the poor could have their voices represented as citizens. We fought hard for universal enfranchisement because our vote gives us power. 


This is the first campaign year where people age 18 to 29 make up the same proportion of the electorate as do baby boomers--about one-third. This makes young voters a powerful political force--yet young voters are the least likely to vote of any age group.  Just 19.9% of 18-29 year olds voted in the 2014 elections. That was the lowest youth voter turnout rate ever recorded in a federal election. 

Young voters constitute the most diverse age group in America, making this demographic perhaps one of the best voices for political candidates who will cater to the needs of more than just one group. Currently, 61% of young people are white, 17% are Hispanic, 15% are African-American, 4% are Asian, and the remaining 3% are of mixed or Native American descent. With diversity only growing in the U.S., it is increasingly important that the diversity of views in our electorate are represented by our elected officials.


It is important for youth to engage with local as well as national politics. Only 50% of eligible youth voted in the 2016 presidential elections. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) released the Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) in early 2016, a data-based ranking of the states and districts, projecting that young voters (ages 18-29) had the most potential to impact the 2016 Presidential & Congressional elections.

The U.S. midterm elections will take place on November 6, 2018. It is critical that youth not only get registered to vote and make a plan to vote in 2018, but also participate in local and national politics leading to the midterm elections.