Scales of justice and gavel on table.

Symposium Introduction: Health Justice: Engaging Critical Perspectives in Health Law and Policy

By Ruqaiijah Yearby and Lindsay F. Wiley

Public health scholars, advocates, and officials have long recognized that factors outside an individual’s control act as barriers to individual and community health.

To strive for health equity, in which everyone “has the opportunity to attain . . . full health potential and no one is disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or any other socially defined circumstance,” many have adopted the social determinants of health (SDOH) model, which identifies social and economic factors that shape health. Yet, health equity has remained elusive in the United States, in part because the frameworks that most prominently guide health reform do not adequately address subordination as the root cause of health inequity, focus too much on individuals, and fail to center community voices and perspectives.

The health justice movement seeks to fill these gaps. Based in part on principles from the reproductive justice, environmental justice, food justice, and civil rights movements, the health justice movement rejects the notion that health inequity is an individual phenomenon best explained and addressed by focusing on health-related behaviors and access to health care. Instead it focuses on health inequity as a social phenomenon demanding wide-ranging structural interventions.

This digital symposium, part of the Health Justice: Engaging Critical Perspectives in Health Law & Policy Initiative launched in 2020, seeks to further define the contours of and debates within the health justice movement and explore how scholars, activists, communities, and public health officials can use health justice frameworks to achieve health equity.

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Close-up of a stethoscope on an American flag

Why Justice is Good for America’s Health

By Dayna Bowen Matthew

Justice is good for health [and] . . . health is the byproduct of justice.

— Norman Daniels, Bruce Kennedy & Ichiro Kawachi (Boston Review, 2000)

Among the most salient lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic are that unjust laws produce unjust health outcomes, and that justice is just plain good for America’s health.

Health justice is the moral mandate to protect and advance an equal opportunity for all to enjoy greatest health and well-being possible. Health justice means that no one person or group of people are granted or excluded from the means of pursuing health on an inequitable basis. To achieve health justice, societal institutions such as governments and health care providers must act to advance equality, by increasing fairness and decreasing unfairness of their current and historic impacts on populations.

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