Reading Highlight: The Human Right to Health

For my next reading highlight, I’ll be discussing “The Human Right to Health” by Jonathan Wolff. While not directly related to American immigration policy, the framework Wolff puts forth intersects with other human rights issues and can easily be linked. 

In Chapter 2, “The Human Right to Health and its Critics,” Wolff identifies the difference between first generation rights and second generation rights. First generation rights, often described as “negative” rights, broadly identify the right to not be persecuted. Wolff uses the freedom of expression and freedom from torture as examples. These rights are passive, as they do not involve interference from the government. Second generation rights, in contrast, require more government action. The right to housing and to healthcare, for example, requires the government to offer resources to its people, and is thus much less passive than first generation rights (Wolff, 2012).

This opens the question as to whose rights the government is responsible for protecting, and whether or not it is responsible for protecting both first generation and second generation rights. American political figures disagree over the government’s responsibility for caring for undocumented immigrants, who contribute to American society and the workforce but lack formal legal recognition. While the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights all identify the right of health as inherent to “everyone” rather than specifying “citizens,” not all countries identify this as a second generation right open to all and requiring government interference. In today’s news, we see this in the U.S. Government’s refusal to provide detained migrant families with flu vaccines, arguing that it is not a legal obligation, despite the extreme negative impact this will have on the health of these immigrants.


Wolff, Jonathan. 2012. The Human Right to Health. W. W. Norton & Company.

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