The right to health MICHAEL FREEM AN
Health is a strong candidate for the status of a universal value. Almost everyone would choose good health over ill health, if everything else were equal. International law recognises a human right to health. The most authoritative statement of this right is found in Article 12 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This states that everyone has a right to ‘the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’. This formulation of the right has been criticised by some philosophers on the ground that it does not help us to perform the unavoidable task of deciding health priorities in circumstances of scarce resources. I argue that philosophical critics of human rights often miss their mark for lack of an adequate sociology of law. I support this argument with an analysis of the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on ‘the right to health’, who has the task of interpreting international law in such a way that its intention can be implemented so far as possible. This analysis shows that law, philosophy and sociology each has characteristic strengths and weaknesses in their treatment of human rights, and that only an interdisciplinary approach can provide us with an adequate understanding of the concept. I conclude that the human right to health is a vague and complex idea, with a morally valid core, and that both its theoretical understanding and its practical implementation require a philosophically and sociologically informed approach to international law.