Life: Human Right or Economic Privilege?

Life: Human Right or Economic Privilege?

By Demi Cartwright

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes April 7th as World Health Day. The purpose of this day is to raise awareness and educate individuals on the various health issues around the world and to garner support and action at both local and international scales in order to combat global health inequities. Every individual has the right to health, as outlined in both international and regional human rights treaties and national constitutions across the globe. The WHO defines the right to health as “the highest attainable standard of health as fundamental to every human being” (2013). This means that every human being has the right to access health care that is both affordable and of appropriate quality. However, millions of individuals throughout the world are either not able to afford adequate health care or are pushed further into poverty as a result of high health care costs (World Health Organization, 2013). The very fact that millions of people are denied and excluded from the right to adequate health, including access to life-saving medicines, demands urgent action as this represents one of the most pressing, albeit unnecessary, global injustices today.

Paul Farmer (2005) argues that poverty is a product of globalization and the system in which we live. The existence of poverty within the developing world subsequently has detrimental affects on the health of impoverished individuals. Poor people are sicker than the non-poor due to increased exposure and decreased access to health care and medicine (Farmer, 2005). Individuals in the developing world are dying from preventable and treatable illnesses, which are not considered problematic in the developed world. The preventable and treatable tools such as medicine, however, are only being made available to the wealthy. Thus, access to medicine is now being determined by wealth, rather than need. How is it that millions of individuals in the developing world are dying and no one is being held accountable?

Drug companies and the issues surrounding patenting intellectual property have significant negative affects on the health of the poor. The focus on profits rather than social justice led the United States to seek an agreement that would protect medicines produced by drug companies (Stiglitz, 2006). However, patenting medication leaves many individuals unable to afford the medicines that are vital to save their lives. Essentially, this has become a matter of ‘life vs. profits.’ Patents were originally intended to protect the intellectual property of individuals in order to ensure that they benefitted economically from their investments. However, patents are used today to enable higher prices for medicines and further give drug companies monopoly rights over life-saving products (Stiglitz, 2006). Only the wealthiest of individuals can afford such medication, which arguably means that drug companies willingly allow the deaths of millions of poor people to occur.

It is no surprise that generic drugs are sold at a significantly lower price than brand-name products. So why are developing countries not simply purchasing or creating their own generic versions of medicines? The United States has created a number of policies in order to prohibit generics from being sold in the market (Stiglitz, 2006). They have restricted the use of data to prove the safety of such drugs, and have prevented companies from producing generic products until their patents expire. Essentially, by protecting and increasing the profits of drug companies the U.S. has prevented millions of people, especially the poor, from accessing health services and life-saving medications.

The United States and other developed countries pushed for the creation of Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) in order for their patents and copyrights to be recognized around the globe (Stiglitz, 2006). This agreement reflects the interests of US corporations at the expense of people in the developing world. The creation of stronger intellectual property regulations is based on the ideology that this will have a positive impact on both the economy and innovation (Stiglitz, 2006). Intellectual property rights allow companies to gain exclusive ownership of resources, which in turn creates a monopoly. The problem with the TRIPs agreement is that it has broadened intellectual property rights and subsequently privatized the health sphere (Stiglitz, 2006). In today’s society, corporations have sought to expand the scope of intellectual property rights in order to eliminate others from challenging their monopoly. This is reflective of a system that acts upon corporate interests and ignores social justice issues, which are not reflective of the needs of individuals who are affected most by the issue. In this situation, supporting broad intellectual property rights and TRIPs causes poor people to have little or no access to affordable drugs (Stiglitz, 2006).

The government funds the majority of research done by drug companies, yet it is the companies that make enormous profit (Stiglitz, 2006). The WHO states: “The right to health means that governments must generate conditions in which everyone can be as healthy as possible” (World Health Organization, 2013). Designing intellectual property laws based on the interests of corporations alone has denied developing countries access to medicine and ultimately denied the poor the right to health. It is vital that a balanced intellectual property regime is created, which pays specific attention to the needs of the developing world. It is clear that the current “one-size-fits-all” approach to development strategies is inadequate and ineffective (Stiglitz, 2006). One of the recommendations put forth by Stiglitz (2006) is to allow developing countries to purchase medicine at cost, waving the additional taxes traditionally imposed. Proponents of TRIPs and broad intellectual property laws claim that this would allow developing countries to have a free ride (Stiglitz, 2006). However, when we consider that everyone has the right to health, and governments have a duty to uphold this right, there is no reason why this recommendation should not be implemented. If developed countries refuse to sell life-saving medicines at cost to developing countries, they are not only denying them the right to health but ultimately the right to life. Let this year’s World Health Day be not just another year of ‘empty’ celebrations but of substantive progress and increased national and global responsibility for making the right to health a global reality.




Farmer, Paul (2005). Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stiglitz, Joseph (2006). Making Globalization Work. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

World Health Organization. (n.d.). World Health Day – 7 April 2014. Retrieved 26 2015, February, from World Health Organization:

World Health Organization. (2013, November). The Right to Health. Retrieved 26 2015, February, from World Health Organization:


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