Public Health Law and Ethics: A Reader

By Lawrence O. Gostin | Go to book overview

FOUR
Human Rights
and Public Health

It is not necessary to recount the numerous charters and declarations … to understand human rights…. All persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Everyone … is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the international human rights instruments without discrimination, such as the rights to life, liberty, security of the person, privacy, health, education, work, social security, and to marry and found a family. Yet, violations of human rights are a reality to be found in every corner of the globe.

Jose Ayala Lasso (UN High Commissioner for
Human Rights) and Peter Piot (Executive
Director of UNAIDS) (1997)

In recent years, human rights have profoundly influenced the field of public health (Mann, Gruskin, Grodin, and Annas 1999). Historians may reasonably inquire why a body of international law dating back to the mid-twentieth century would suddenly become part of public health discourse. The emphasis on individual rights and liberties that became fashionable in the AIDS pandemic later in the century provides a partial explanation. Civil libertarians turned to the language of human rights to defend persons living with HIV/AIDS from stigma and discrimination (Gostin and Lazzarini 1997).

Scholars and practitioners came to see human rights as essential tools in the work of public health. They reasoned that persons who fear government coercion or private discrimination would not come forward for testing, treatment, and partner notification. Individuals who lacked social status and economic power, moreover, would be more vulnerable to infection. Women, for example, may understand that unprotected sex or needle sharing transmits HIV infection, and they may even have the means of protection available (e.g., condoms and sterile injection equipment). But if these women remain powerless in abusive

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