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The right to health keeps evolving throughout history

Author  :  Li Zhengxin     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-11-23

The right to health is the right to attain and maintain health. It has been valued by human society since a very early age, with rich institutional practices. Continuously evolving throughout history, it is multifold in its manifestation, such as the right to life, social rights, and medical rights.

As the right to life

Above all, the right to health is the adjunct associated with the right to life, and the two are closely related with each other. The most precious and basic right of humans, the right to life lays the foundation for all other rights.

In ancient China, individuals of healthy bodies and a certain number of the population were the basis for the existence of a national society. For realistic purposes, rulers in feudal society placed a high premium on people’s health and emphasized the importance of safeguarding it. The acts that infringed upon others’ physical health were regarded as violations of laws and even crimes. Regarding the legislation, there had been prescriptions that unlawful infringement of other people’s physical health should be prohibited since the time when records of law started to appear in ancient China. The law codes of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) stipulated in a detailed way the lawmaking about protecting the individual’s health. It can be seen that lawmaking about the right to health has a long history in China. In addition, quarantines of patients with malignant infectious diseases can be found in records as early as in the Qin and Han dynasties (221BC-220AD). Given harsh environmental conditions, pandemics often recurred in ancient times and during periods when they raged, the governmental officials usually took active measures of prevention and control.

However, it is noteworthy that such right to health still existed as merely an assurance of a secure life. The autocracy in feudal society meant that commoners’ rights were quite limited. Coupled with turbulent social orders, their right to health was hard to attain in the real sense.

As social rights

When it came to the modern times, the right to health was more a type of social right. While the industrial revolution had largely improved social productivity and advanced the capitalist social development, serious health problems ensued. As lifestyle and social pace accelerated, many people were nagged by their health conditions because of the difficulty in adapting to a complex social life. This required national governments to provide due guarantees to the common people. In reality, after the pandemic that swept Europe in the 19th century, people started to pay attention to sanitation of the urban environment, which propelled the birth of public hygiene studies.

By ensuring its social members’ health, the state satisfied its needs for industrialization, which required plenty of labor. Social development was thus advanced in this way. At the same time, the entrenched idea of social justice and breakthroughs in medical science also required the state to shoulder more responsibility for offering well-being. By this time period, some developed countries established public institutions where some poor and infirm patients who could not afford medical services received free treatment and aid.

As medical rights

Later on, the right to health as a type of medical right gradually became independent from the grand narratives of traditional frameworks confined by the right to life and social rights. In the Almaty Declaration issued in 1978, the WHO stated that all countries should ensure primary health care for all, and mobilize and distribute a country’s medical and health resources rationally. This target can also be found in the statement of the Millennium Development Goals of the UN issued in 2000: “to ensure universal access to essential medicines.” Henceforth, the right to health has become an important right enjoyed in the sphere of medical care.

Overall, the way to protect the right to health has transformed from being somewhat negative—excluding others’ infringement—to positive. The former can be easily practiced but the fulfillment of the latter is controversial, since the basic health care service offered to the public by the state government varies with each state’s national conditions. As such, it is worth thinking about how to define and determine the basic guarantee of health, which refers to the provision of primary-level health care services. Definitely, its coverage evolves as medical tech progresses in today’s advancing society. Its scope also continuously expands: some medical services that were hard to imagine in the past have now been included in it. Meanwhile, the definition of health also keeps extending, for example, it now transcends beyond the sphere of traditional biomedicine and attention is also paid to mental health. All these necessitate our precise understanding of the course in which the right to health keeps pace with the time for better implementing the strategy of building a “healthy China.”


Li Zhengxin is an associate professor from the Criminal Justice School at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law.

Editor: Yu Hui

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