Is Healthcare a Civil or Human Right?


The subject of health care and its nature of fundamentality for human beings has been one of the most unsolved and most politicized in the United States. While the debate rages, minorities and non white Americans continue suffering from poor health due to their economic and social disadvantages and also inappropriate systematic approaches by the policy makers which tend to sideline some residents of the country while favoring others. Considering this situation, is it possible to argue out that health care is a civil right or is it a fundamental human right that should be enjoyed by all citizens of a country? To simplify this, is health care a fundamental right of which every human being must have or is it a legal right that is bestowed to the citizens of a given country under the stipulations of the constitution? This paper seeks to argue out that like any other fundamental human rights like food and shelter, health care is a human right and should not be considered a legal right that is provided by the law. This position is attributed to the fact that gauging health care from a legal perspective, i.e. taking it as a civil right leads to policies that further push more people into poor health.

Healthcare reforms

One clear picture of this debate has been exposed by the stalled health care reforms due to the vagueness of the principles and policies within the United States. As a result of this, the President Barrack Hussein Obama who, during the campaign period, approached the subject of health care as a fundamental human right had vowed to ensure that 46 million Americans who were living without a reliable health care policy would be given opportunity to access a medical cover which would guarantee health care quality to all Americans. However, the debate changed directions due to the political nature of it and the unclear principles and policies. The President later reduced the number of people to benefit from health care reforms from 46 million to 30 million. This reduction is characterized by non naturalized citizens of America and the undocumented immigrants (Rudiger, par. 7).

Healthcare as a civil right

On the other hand, one of the Republicans, Zack Wamp while being interviewed in 2009 termed health care as a privilege. According to him, health care is not really a right; it is something that can be undertaken from a philanthropic perspective. Most of them argue that it would be good if many Americans were accessible to good health care. However, it was inappropriate for the government to use tax payers’ money to cater for health care for the underprivileged members of the society. Furthermore, they also argue that health care provision should be the obligation of the private sector. If failure by the private sector is determined, the citizens should look for their own options. It should not be taken as the burden of the government because the government has much serious issues to consider other than getting involved in the provision of privileges to the underprivileged. This is the effect of what the perception of health care can have on a country. If viewed as a fundamental human right, every human being will be given opportunity to enjoy it. However, if approached as a civil right, the legal powers vested by the constitution will define its applicability to citizens alone. Non citizens will be forced to do without it legally. Furthermore, the government’s approach to the issue will be slow and without any emphasis. A good example is pointed out by the position of Wamp who believes that putting the burden of ensuring equitable and accessible health care to all Americans is a role of the private sector and should be taken as a government responsibility (Head, par. 4).

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

However, is the legal basis of taking health care as a civil right justifiable? To have insight into this, one should first understand the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In its preamble, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights points out that the stipulations within it are to be “…a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of the society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories within their jurisdiction” (United Nations, par. 7). Considering this preamble, every human being is supposed to enjoy and promote the human rights irrespective of his nationality. This drives a very important point in this debate. All the rights that are stipulated within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are supposed to be universal and applicable to all human beings. This means that denying any human being any of the rights is a contravention of the International Human rights. In addition, the preamble obligates every nation to ensure that all individuals within their jurisdiction and those living within territories under them must ensure that the rights stipulated are promoted and advanced.

United Nation’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

In addition, the United Nation’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also emphasizes on the fact that health care is a fundamental human right that no single individual within a country should be denied. In its 12th Article, the covenant underscored their position by arguing that every individual has the right to enjoy the highest level of mental and physical health to the highest level that can be achieved. They advocate for the reduction of stillbirths and infant mortality, good health for the child during development, good environmental hygiene, prevention of epidemic and endemic diseases, and creation of policies that promote the accessibility of every individual to medical services in the event of sickness.

However, the most relevant part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights comes under article 25 which specifies that “Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for health and well being of himself and his family, including…medical care and necessary social services” (United Nations, par. 23). This specification by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts health care to the class of other fundamental human rights including food and shelter. Considering the stipulations and the viability of the Universal Declaration, all human beings are supposed to be covered by the rules. Any member that is within the territory of a given nation must be subjected to these rules. This means that nations should take health care as a fundamental human right and not a civil right. The Universal Declaration’s decision to obligate the nations to ensure that every individual within its jurisdiction should be given the opportunity to enjoy good health care and other social services clearly eradicates any legality for a given nation to take this as a civil right. This argument is especially true considering that civil rights are given by the constitution and are written so that one can enjoy the rights by the virtue that he is a citizen of the given country. However, the human rights are not written down so that they have legal obligations to a group of people. Human rights are inherent. They are innate and one must enjoy the rights by virtue that he is a human being, not by virtue of being under a given jurisdiction. This means that human beings will posses the right immediately they are born (Human Rights to Health Fact Sheet, par. 5).

Whenever the issue of health care is taken to be a civil right, problem arises in terms of denying some rightful members of a nation their rights. For example, Amnesty USA (par. 7) argues that African Americans are subjected to denial of human rights if the policies and principles of the health care system are made to exclude immigrants who are undocumented. Using documentation as a basis of measuring qualification places some of the African Americans within the category and hence makes them get denied their rights just because they happen to be classified as undocumented. This argument hence makes it clear that health care is not a civil right. It is a human right. When a system favors a group of people and excludes others from benefiting, it becomes a contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Similarly, if a nation’s health care policies favor one of the groups of people and excludes others, it means that the underprivileged group has been demeaned. They will have been taken as less human or less deserving. But what does the Universal Declaration of Human rights point out? According to the Declaration, every human being is equal. No one shall be taken to be important over the other irrespective of any justification. Therefore, if a group of people is given privilege above another in health care policies and principles, it will mean that the nation does not respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This, therefore, underscores the fact that respecting equality health care is equal to respecting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the other hand, creation of inequalities within health care system on its own is an indication of contravention of human rights. This is therefore clear that health care is a fundamental human right and not a civil right that is guaranteed legally by the nation’s constitution.

There is another argument that makes health care a human right and not a civil right. In the effort to express explicitness, the human rights framework clearly points out the extent to which a definition reaches. This is contrary to civil rights which have to some point been inadequate in their definition. This especially applies to the economic and social rights. In most countries, United States of America included, the definition of civil rights would be summed up as equality under the law. This is to say that all individuals in a given country are formally equal. This definition, when applied to health care and basically many other social and economic rights might be considered flawed. In this definition, specificity is missing. Civil rights do not give the standard to which the equality is to be measured. For instance, under the civil rights, the law might specify that all Americans must be equally accessible to a good health care program. What the civil rights definition actually emphasizes is the aspect of equality but not the essentiality of the rights. For instance, the civil rights will not have been infringed if every body within the given country was denied access to a good health care system. Provided that the policies in place were equally distributed to all citizens in the country, the rights will have been distributed equally. However, the citizens will not be enjoying what they rightly deserve. Under the human rights specifications, the provision of appropriate health care policies is essential. Failure of a nation to provide an appropriate health care system for its citizens albeit equally is unacceptable to the human rights domain. This makes health care a human right because it must be provided failure to which the country will be contravening the Universal Declaration of Human rights. If all the citizens of a given country were equally denied the rights to access a good health care plan, it would not be illegal. To the perspective of civil rights, it is alright. The most important thing is the equality under the eyes of the law (Amnesty USA, par. 14).

This therefore points out that civil rights are those whose solutions can be sought from the judicial system. These are issues that can be solved through the court of law depending on the specification of the law of that land. As a result, it involves cases such as segregation and other kinds of formal equity. Unfortunately, health care cannot be measured with a similar yardstick. An individual’s health is not dependent on the specifications of the laws of the land. This is an innate phenomenon and right that one owns immediately he is born. Equally, justice concerning human rights is not sought in the country’s judicial system. In this case, justice is sought beyond this system. It is sought in the universal natural law that dictates the general wellbeing of an individual. As a result, civil rights call for equity in policy formulation as opposed to human rights which do not only call for equity but also demand that the policies give a platform through which every citizen of the country can be accessible to a system that offers accountability and empowerment. Equally, health care policies need not be measured on the verge of equality (as from a civil rights position). Instead, health care system policies should be measured from the accountability and empowerment of the citizens. This means that a good health care system should be one that offers mechanisms for financial accountability for those entities involved in funding and also has mechanisms that empower every member of the society to actively participate in cost sharing and also benefit sharing. This is to say that a good health care system policy reforms go beyond the internal judicial structures and assume a more universal approach. These are the characteristics of a real human right and not a civil right (Amnesty USA, par. 16).

Equity and accessibility

Civil rights are those rules and regulations enacted to promote the formal equality of the citizens of a given country. This is to say that civil rights work at promoting the human rights of a given society. For example, the civil rights will be enacted by a country to ensure that all citizens are treated equally during policy formulation for social and economic rights. Considering the issue of health care, it is clear that health care is a human right that calls upon the government to enact civil right regulations that will promote the provision of health care to all citizens of the country. By accessing a good health care program equally, the citizens will be enjoying their human rights. As quoted by Joannides (par. 4), the American Medical Association, Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs points out that there have been experienced racial disparities in health care. Most of these disparities come as a result of different levels of education and income, social and cultural factors of the society in question and also weaknesses from the health care organizations. However, Watson believes that this is not supposed to be the norm. It is not correct from a human rights perspective that some individuals should be enjoying health care benefits while others suffer from poor health care systems. With such systems, the underprivileged individuals suffer from injustice and unfairness. This also contravenes the medical ethics which call for equality in the provision of their services. Generally, this means that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights’ specification of equality and justice to all will have been contravened. As pointed out earlier, it is the role of the government to come up with policies through which the human rights can be promoted. This can be achieved through the formation of civil laws that promote the wellbeing of the society health wise. For example, there should exist laws that reduce the recruitment restrictive which hinder minorities and people with color from serving in the ministries, policies that will put into consideration the geographical barriers to health care access, policies that will address the cultural characteristics of the region in question, policies that will reduce stereotyping for the minority ethnicities and also enacting civil right legislations that will assist in more recruitment of ethnic minorities within the health care domain (Rosenbaum 6).

Considering the above argument, it becomes evident that civil rights advocate for equality while human rights advocate for equitable accessibility. Therefore, every citizen within a country must be given the opportunity to access good health care program failure to which will be a contravention of the universal human rights declaration. On the other hand, it is upon the government to ensure that the universal human rights are enjoyed by its citizens. However, this does not come easily. It requires some civil right legislation which will ensure that the citizens are privileged and empowered. The legislations should ensure that policy formulations are made based on the human rights needs of the society. Therefore, health care is a human right which depends upon civil right legislations for its promotion (Grover, par. 15).


Finally, the efforts by several organizations that have been trying to push for equity in health care also points out on the fact that it is not a civil right but a human right. Most of the organizations pushing for this equity have been using human rights positions to campaign for equity as opposed to using civil rights as their basis of argument. The National Health Equity Coalition, for instance has for a long time campaigned for this cause by insisting that disparities in health care was a contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Vermont Workers’ Center, par. 6). They argue that without equity in health care, the government will be exercising injustice and discrimination and this will also push more people into bad health. All these contravene the Declaration which stipulates that all people are equal and none should be discriminated against. In addition, it will be contravening the 25th article of the declaration which points out that every man has a right to good health. It will also be contravening the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which also call upon all individuals and organs to ensure that human beings are subjected to good mental and physical health. Writing to president Obama, the organization said, “in order to address racial and ethnic health disparities, it is important that the right to health is implemented so that available resources are utilized in a manner that supports achievement of the highest attainable standard of health for every individual” (Rudiger, par. 9). This clearly indicates that the organization saw the importance of referring to health care as a human right than civil right. Other organizations that have been calling upon the government to ensure equity in health care provision as a fundamental human right include the US Human Rights Network which, in 2007, compiled a report that included racial disparities as contravention of Human rights. Equally, Amnesty USA has also launched its campaign to advocate for health care reforms that will guarantee equity in health care by eliminating disparities so that the human rights for the minority groups will be enjoyed. All these organizations point out that health care is a fundamental human right and not a civil right that can only be enjoyed by citizens of a given country as stipulated by their constitution.

The issue of health care plays a very important role in a nation’s development. This results into its high prioritization during political campaigns. However, this subject draws controversy on whether it should be approached as a civil right or a human right. While one might think that tackling the question from any perspective has no implication, this article has shown that it is important that health care is considered a human right and not a civil right. Considering it a civil right leads to perceptions like Wamp’s who believes that health care is a privilege. Consequently, the government ends up doing nothing for its citizens. However, all these can be solved if the issue is taken as a human right. In addition, health care can be considered a human right based on the several international conventions including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. As a human right, health care is a fundamental need that every person requires by virtue that he is a human being. In addition human rights justice cannot be achieved from a country’s judicial system. Furthermore, the question of equality tends to dominate the issues of civil rights. However, human rights advocates for an equitable accessibility to an economic or social right. As a conclusion, health care is an issue that goes beyond the country’s constitution. It is an issue that is measured from international standards and hence universal. Therefore, health care is a human right and not a civil right.

Works Cited

Amnesty USA. We Believe Health Care is a Human Right, Not a commodity. n.d. 2009. Web.

Grover, Anand. The Power of Community in Advancing the Right to Health: A Conversation with Anand Grover. Health and Human Rights Journal. 2009. Web.

Head, Tom. Is Universal Health Care a Human Right? 2009. Web.

Human Rights to Health Fact Sheet No.2. what are the Key Principles of Human Rights to Health Care? 2009. Web.

Joannides, Mark. Human Rights in Health: A Short Introduction. Department of Health. 2009. Web.

Rosenbaum, Serrano. Civil Rights in a Changing Health Care System: The Relationship Between Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Managed Care Plans. National Library of Medicine. 1995. Web.

Rudiger, Anja. Beyond the Market: Health Care as Human or Civil Right? The Open Forum. 2009. Web.

United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 2010. Web.

Vermont Workers’ Center. Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign. 2010. Web.

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LawBirdie. "Is Healthcare a Civil or Human Right?" March 27, 2023.