(Public) Health and Human Rights in Practice

J Health Polit Policy Law. 2016 Feb;41(1):129-39. doi: 10.1215/03616878-3445659. Epub 2015 Nov 13.


Public health's reliance on law to define and carry out public activities makes it impossible to define a set of ethical principles unique to public health. Public health ethics must be encompassed within--and consistent with--a broader set of principles that define the power and limits of governmental institutions. These include human rights, health law, and even medical ethics. The human right to health requires governments not only to respect individual human rights and personal freedoms, but also, importantly, to protect people from harm from external sources and third parties, and to fulfill the health needs of the population. Even if human rights are the natural language for public health, not all public health professionals are comfortable with the language of human rights. Some argue that individual human rights--such as autonomy and privacy--unfairly limit the permissible means to achieve the goal of health protection. We argue that public health should welcome and promote the human rights framework. In almost every instance, this will make public health more effective in the long run, because the goals of public health and human rights are the same: to promote human flourishing.

Keywords: bioethics; health and human rights; health law; public health ethics; surveillance.

MeSH terms

  • Health Care Sector / ethics*
  • Human Rights*
  • Humans
  • Legislation as Topic / ethics*
  • Public Health / ethics*
  • Public Health Surveillance