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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

WHO-definition of health must be enforced by national law: a debate

Marion Habersack1* and Gero Luschin2

Author Affiliations

1 Office of the Vice-Rector for Teaching & Studies, Medical University of Graz, Auenbruggerplatz 2, Graz, 8036, Austria

2 Womens Health Association, Quellengasse 36, Graz, 8010, Austria

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BMC Medical Ethics 2013, 14:24  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-14-24

Published: 19 June 2013



On its establishment, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined health as a fundamental human right deserving legal protection. Subsequently, the Ottawa Charter reaffirmed health as a fundamental right, and emphasized health promotion as the most appropriate response to global health issues. Here we suggest that the WHO definition of health as more than simply the absence of illness is not normative, and therefore requires standardization. To date such standardization unfortunately is lacking.


National legislatures must actively ensure fair access to health care, both nationally and internationally, and also must reduce social inequality. To achieve this requires practical action, not statements of intentions, commitments or targets. Protecting fundamental rights to health care can be a fruitful focus for legislatures. Legislative action can build an objective legal framework for health care law, and guide its interpretation and application. Additionally, it is important to ensure the law is appropriate, useful and sustainable.


Action is needed to protect the fundamental right to health care. Legislators should appropriately incorporate the WHO recommendations regarding this right into national law. Additionally, professional experts should help interpret and codify concepts of health and join the interdisciplinary discussion of a variable health standard.

WHO; Health; Right to health; Democratic process