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Home Archive Volume 65 Volume 65, Issue 2 Health Justice: A Framework (and Call to Action) for the Elimination of Health Inequity and Social Injustice
Health Justice: A Framework (and Call to Action) for the Elimination of Health Inequity and Social Injustice

By Emily A. Benfer │ 65 Am. U. L. Rev. 275 (2015)


Every aspect of society is dependent upon the health of its members.  Health is essential to an individual’s well-being, quality of life, and ability to participate in society.  Yet the healthcare industry, even at its optimal level of functioning, cannot improve the health of the population without addressing the root causes of poor health.  The health of approximately 46.7 million individuals, most of whom are low-income and racial minorities, is threatened by economic, societal, cultural, environmental, and social conditions.  Poor health in any population group affects everyone, leading to higher crime rates, negative economic impacts, decreased residential home values, increased healthcare costs, and other devastating consequences.  Despite this fact, efforts to improve health among low-income and minority communities are impeded by inequitable social structures, stereotypes, legal systems, and regulatory schemes that are not designed to take into account the social determinants of health in decision making models and legal interpretation.  As a result, a large segment of the population is continually denied the opportunity to live long, productive lives and to exercise their rights under democratic principles.  Health, equity, and justice make up the keystone of a functional, thriving society.  These principles are unsatisfied when they do not apply equally to all members of society. 

This Article describes the social and legal roots of poor health and how health inequity, social injustice, and poverty are inextricably linked.  For example, it provides an in depth overview of the social determinants of health, including poverty, institutional discrimination and segregation, implicit bias, residential environmental hazards, adverse childhood experiences, and food insecurity. It then discusses how the law is a determinant of health due to court systems that do not evaluate individual circumstances, the enactment of laws that perpetuate poor health, and the lack of primary prevention laws.  It demonstrates how addressing these issues requires true adherence to equality principles and making justice and freedom of opportunity accessible to everyone.  Finally, it recommends the creation of “health justice,” a new jurisprudential and legislative framework for the achievement and delivery of health equity and social justice.

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