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Open Access Research article

The emergence of a global right to health norm – the unresolved case of universal access to quality emergency obstetric care

Rachel Hammonds12* and Gorik Ooms12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Public Health, Institute of Tropical Medicine, 155 Nationalestraat, Antwerp 2000, Belgium

2 Law and Development Research Group, University of Antwerp, Faculty of Law, Venusstraat 23, Antwerp 2000, Belgium

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BMC International Health and Human Rights 2014, 14:4  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-14-4

Published: 27 February 2014

Abstract

Background

The global response to HIV suggests the potential of an emergent global right to health norm, embracing shared global responsibility for health, to assist policy communities in framing the obligations of the domestic state and the international community. Our research explores the extent to which this global right to health norm has influenced the global policy process around maternal health rights, with a focus on universal access to emergency obstetric care.

Methods

In examining the extent to which arguments stemming from a global right to health norm have been successful in advancing international policy on universal access to emergency obstetric care, we looked at the period from 1985 to 2013 period. We adopted a qualitative case study approach applying a process-tracing methodology using multiple data sources, including an extensive literature review and limited key informant interviews to analyse the international policy agenda setting process surrounding maternal health rights, focusing on emergency obstetric care. We applied John Kingdon's public policy agenda setting streams model to analyse our data.

Results

Kingdon’s model suggests that to succeed as a mobilising norm, the right to health could work if it can help bring the problem, policy and political streams together, as it did with access to AIDS treatment. Our analysis suggests that despite a normative grounding in the right to health, prioritisation of the specific maternal health entitlements remains fragmented.

Conclusions

Despite United Nations recognition of maternal mortality as a human rights issue, the relevant policy communities have not yet managed to shift the policy agenda to prioritise the global right to health norm of shared responsibility for realising access to emergency obstetric care. The experience of HIV advocates in pushing for global solutions based on right to health principles, including participation, solidarity and accountability; suggest potential avenues for utilising right to health based arguments to push for policy priority for universal access to emergency obstetric care in the post-2015 global agenda.