Gavel and stethoscope.

Symposium Conclusion: Health Justice: Engaging Critical Perspectives in Health Law & Policy

By Lindsay F. Wiley and Ruqaiijah Yearby

As our digital symposium on health justice comes to a close, we have much to be thankful for and inspired by. We are honored to provide a platform for contributions from scholars spanning multiple disciplines, perspectives, and aspects of health law and policy. Collectively with these contributors, we aim to define the contours of the health justice movement and debates within it, and to explore how scholars, activists, communities, and public health officials can work together to engage critical perspectives in health law and policy.

As we described in our symposium introduction, the questions we posed to contributors focused their work on four main themes: (1) subordination (including discrimination and poverty) is the root cause of health injustice, (2) subordination shapes health through multiple pathways, (3) health justice engages multiple kinds of experiences and expertise, and (4) health justice requires empowering communities, redressing harm, and reconstructing systems. Most of the contributions to this symposium cut across more than one of these themes, but we present them here in four broad categories.

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Washington, DC, USA - July 6, 2020: Protesters rally for housing as a human right at Black Homes Matter rally at Freedom Plaza, organized by Empower DC.

Building Power Across Movements for Health Justice 

By Solange Gould

At its core, public health is the radical concept that everyone has a fundamental right to the conditions required for health and well-being. To realize this vision of health justice, we must forge a strategy that moves beyond the pre-pandemic status quo and the broken systems that got us there.  

It’s time to re-envision and invest in a new public health infrastructure, one that is equipped and authorized to respond to the concurrent global crises we are facing: COVID-19; structural racism; White supremacy; climate change; and the failures of capitalism to provide for the basic human needs that are required for health. This infrastructure must center and build the power of those most impacted by structural inequity in order to truly advance justice. 

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New York City, New York/USA June 2, 2020 Black Lives Matter Protest March demanding justice for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality.

The Centrality of Social Movements in Addressing the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Malia Maier and Terry McGovern

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in higher rates of family violence. For advocates and funders, this provided important opportunities to partner with movements, including racial justice, Gender-Based Violence (GBV), Reproductive Justice, and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) movements.

We interviewed 24 GBV and SRHR service providers, advocacy organizations, and donors throughout the country to understand how the pandemic and concurrent racial justice movements were impacting critical GBV and SRHR services.

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Group of Diverse Kids Playing in a Field Together.

Health Justice is Within Our Reach

By Dayna Bowen Matthew

Health justice is the outcome when law protects against the unequal distribution of the basic needs that all humanity requires to be healthy. Angela Harris and Aysha Pamukcu define health justice in terms of ending the subordination and discrimination that produce health disparities.

I first saw and experienced the need for the work to achieve health justice as a child. I grew up in the South Bronx, insulated from the absence of health justice until the fourth grade, when I began attending private school. Before then, I had no idea that the racially, ethnically, and economically segregated society in which I lived, played, and attended school and church was any different than the society that existed unbeknownst to me outside of my zip code.

I crossed interstate highway exchanges daily as I walked to P.S. 93, oblivious to the fact that other kids did not breathe the exhaust fumes and toxins from nearby waste transfer stations that tainted the air where my mostly Black, Dominican, and Puerto Rican neighbors lived. I had no idea that clean, breathable air was inequitably distributed in this country by race.

It was not until I left the South Bronx to attend school in Riverdale that I realized other families had an array of housing options to choose from that were different than mine. In fourth grade, when my family began voluntarily bussing me to private school, I learned that the housing available to families extended beyond the racially segregated shotgun row house I lived in, the stinky, dimly lit apartment buildings on my corner or “the projects” where my grandparents lived in Harlem. Who knew there were sprawling homes atop manicured lawns and opulent apartments overlooking Central Park available throughout other parts of the city? Who knew that even modestly priced apartments could be located near green spaces, well-stocked grocery markets, and schools that prepared kids well for college? Not me. I had no idea until I began to see that decent, clean, affordable housing, and resource-rich neighborhoods are inequitably distributed by race and ethnicity in America.

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCT. 8, 2019: Rally for LGBTQ rights outside Supreme Court as Justices hear oral arguments in three cases dealing with discrimination in the workplace because of sexual orientation.

LGBTQ Health Equity and Health Justice

By Heather Walter-McCabe

LGBTQ communities experience health inequities compared to heterosexual and cisgender peers. The health justice framework allows advocates to move the work upstream to the root causes of the problems, rather than placing a band-aid on the resultant consequences once the harm is caused.

It is not enough to provide individual treatment for the harm caused by stigma and bias. Health justice is a crucial means of ensuring that health care is equitable and that impacted communities are involved in policy and system advocacy.

The health justice framework, with its emphasis on community involvement in structural and governmental responses to systems-level transformation, must guide work in the area of LGBTQ health equity.

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U.S. Capitol Building.

Congress Should Act to Fund Medical-Legal Partnerships

By Emily Rock and James Bhandary-Alexander

On August 9, legislators introduced a new bill in Congress that allocates funding to the development of Medical-Legal Partnerships (MLPs), in recognition of the important role MLPs can play in the lives of older Americans.

As attorneys with the Medical-Legal Partnership program at the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School, we strongly encourage Congress to act quickly to pass this legislation.

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Brown Gavel With Medical Stethoscope Near Book At Wooden Desk In Courtroom.

Health Justice, Structural Change, and Medical-Legal Partnerships

By Liz Tobin-Tyler and Joel Teitelbaum

To us, health justice means change.

Changes to norms and attitudes, to systems and environments, to law and policy, to resource and opportunity distribution. Not cosmetic or peripheral change, but wide-scale, systemic change. For health justice to be realized — for all people to reach their full health potential — laws and policies must be geared toward restructuring the systems, practices, and norms that have heretofore advantaged some groups over others, and thus given them greater opportunity for good health, economic and social prosperity, and greater longevity.

We recognize that this kind of change is profoundly challenging, both biologically and structurally. Biologically, because humans are programmed to do what’s comfortable, and what’s comfortable is what’s already known. Structurally, because of the nation’s unique political, social, and cultural attributes. Some of these attributes include a strong sense of individualism, and thus an entrenched unwillingness to prioritize community benefit over individual choice; limited governmental power; capitalism; unprecedented wealth with massive inequality; resistance to growing racial and ethnic diversity; over-spending on the downstream consequences of the failure to invest in upstream wellness; and a willingness to enact and maintain policies and practices that privilege some lives over others.

For these reasons, we are not naïve about the prospects for major change in a relatively short period of time, but neither are we cowed by the challenge. We embrace the opportunity to get uncomfortable, to challenge the racist, gender-based, and ableist norms and attitudes in all forms that harm health and well-being, to raise awareness of the inert systems that perpetuate health injustice, and to promote innovative and progressive law and policy change.

One of the ways that we apply our approach to health justice is our work to develop and advance medical-legal partnerships (MLPs), as both an expert consultant (Liz) to and Co-Director (Joel) of the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.

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Blue stethoscope with gavel on white background

Equipping the Next Generation of Health Justice Leaders

By Yael Cannon

Health justice begins with exploring and understanding health disparities and the role of law in facilitating the social, political, and economic determinants at their roots. It requires naming structural racism — and the many forms of subordination that flow from it — as a public health crisis and recognizing that health justice is racial justice. Most importantly, health justice requires us to partner with affected communities to leverage law and policy to address and eliminate the root causes of disparities.

Those of us at schools of law and medicine, and other academic institutions who are training the next generation of lawyers, policy advocates and policymakers, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals have a special responsibility to equip our students with the knowledge, skills, and values they need to ensure that everyone has an equal chance at health and well-being.

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Los Angeles, California / USA - May 28, 2020: People in Downtown Los Angeles protest the brutal Police killing of George Floyd.

Health Justice: Love, Freedom Dreaming, and Power Building

By Jamila Michener

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

— Cornel West

Simple yet resonant, Cornel West’s rendering of justice draws on an emotion that most people understand on a deep personal level: love. Viewing health justice through the lens of love concretizes it when I am otherwise tempted to treat it as an abstract notion. Love is familiar, intuitive, and tangible. Conceptualizing health justice as a public enactment of love directs my thoughts to the people I cherish most dearly, bringing the reality of the concept into sharp relief.

What do I want for the people I love? Of course, I want them to have access to high-quality health care: primary care doctors, acute care physicians, specialists, nurses, therapists, local hospitals where they will be treated with dignity and much more.

Over and above these features of health care systems, I want the people I love to have the building blocks necessary for healthy living: safe and comfortable housing, nutritious food, supportive social relationships, jobs that offer a living wage, education, freedom from poverty, violence, and exploitation.

Going even further, I want the people I love to have the agency to shape their own lives and the capacity to chart paths in the communities they inhabit. In short, I want them to have power. Power facilitates all the things listed above (i.e., the social determinants of health) on a durable, equitable, and sustainable basis.

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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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