Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 309–322

Evaluating ‘Bioethical Approaches’ to Human Rights



In recent years there has been growing scholarly interest in the relationship between bioethics and human rights. The majority of this work has proposed that the normative and institutional frameworks of human rights can usefully be employed to address those bioethical controversies that have a global reach: in particular, to the genetic modification of human beings, and to the issue of access to healthcare. In response, a number of critics have urged for a degree of caution about applying human rights to such controversies. In particular, they have claimed that human rights have unresolved distributive and foundational problems. Interestingly, however, some of these critics have gone on to suggest that it might be possible to draw on certain bioethical insights to remedy these problems with human rights. This paper evaluates these recent attempts to apply insights from bioethics to the theory and practice of human rights. It argues that while these insights do not constitute an entirely new and original contribution to human rights thinking, they do force human rights scholars and campaigners to reflect on some key issues. First of all, they force us to question the prevalent idea that human rights are always ‘inviolable trumps’. Secondly, they demand that we pay close attention to the ‘fairness’ of the institutions we charge with determining our concrete rights. And finally, and perhaps most radically, these insights challenge the notion that human rights are held exclusively by members of the human species.


Human rights Bioethics Human dignity Genetic enhancement Health 


  1. Alexy R (2002) A theory of constitutional rights. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  2. Alexy R (2003) Constitutional rights, balancing, and rationality. Ratio Juris 16:131–140Google Scholar
  3. Annas G (2004) American bioethics: crossing human rights and health law boundaries. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Annas G (2010) Human rights and American bioethics: resistance is futile. Camb Q Healthc Ethic 19:133–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Annas G, Andrews L, Isasi R (2002) Protecting the endangered human: toward an international treaty prohibiting cloning and inheritable alterations. Am J Law Med 28:151–178Google Scholar
  6. Arras J, Fenton E (2009) Bioethics and human rights: access to health-related goods. Hastings Cent Rep 29:27–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Ashcroft R (2008) The troubled relationship between bioethics and human rights. In: Freeman M (ed) Law and bioethics. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 31–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Caney S (2007) Global poverty and human rights: the case for positive duties. In: Pogge T (ed) Freedom from poverty as a human right: who owes what to the very poor? Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 275–302Google Scholar
  9. Cavalieri P (2001) The animal question: why nonhuman animals deserve human rights. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  10. Cavalieri P, Singer P (1993) The great ape project: equality beyond humanity. Fourth Estate, LondonGoogle Scholar
  11. Chan S (2009) Should we enhance animals? J Med Ethics 35:678–683CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chapman A (2009) Globalization, human rights, and the social determinants of health. Bioethics 23:97–111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Daniels N (2008) Just health: meeting health needs fairly. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  14. Daniels N, Sabin J (1997) Limits to health care: fair procedures, democratic deliberation, and the legitimacy problem for insurers. Philos Pub Affairs 26:303–350CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Donnelly J (2007) The relative universality of human rights. Hum Rights Quart 29:281–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dworkin R (1977) Taking rights seriously. Duckworth, LondonGoogle Scholar
  17. Dworkin R (1984) Rights as trumps. In: Waldron J (ed) Theories of rights. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 153–167Google Scholar
  18. Dworkin R (1996) Freedom’s law: the moral reading of the constitutional law. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  19. Fenton E (2008) Genetic enhancement—a threat to human rights? Bioethics 22:1–7Google Scholar
  20. Fenton E, Arras J (2010a) Bioethics and human rights: curb your enthusiasm. Camb Q Healthc Ethic 19:127–133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fenton E, Arras J (2010b) Wrong again: rejoinder to Annas. Camb Q Healthc Ethic 19:141–150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fukuyama F (2002) Our posthuman future. Farrar Straus and Giroux, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  23. Gewirth A (1982) Human rights: essays on justification and applications. University of Chicago Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  24. Griffin J (2008) On human rights. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Habermas J (1996) Between facts and norms: contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. Polity, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  26. Harris J (2011) Taking the ‘human’ out of human rights. Camb Q Healthc Ethic 20:9–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hunt P (2006) The human right to the highest attainable standard of health: new opportunities and challenges. Trans R Soc Trop Med Hyg 100:603–607CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kumm M (2007) Political liberalism and the structure of rights: on the place and limits of the proportionality requirement. In: Paulson S, Pavlakos G (eds) Law, rights, discourse: themes of the work of Robert Alexy. Hart, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  29. Kumm M (2010) The idea of Socratic contestation and the right to justification: the point of rights-based proportionality review. Law Ethic Hum Right 4:140–175Google Scholar
  30. Maclean N (ed) (2007) Distributing healthcare: principles, practices and policies. Imprint, ExeterGoogle Scholar
  31. Moller K (2007) Balancing and the structure of constitutional rights. Int J Const Law 5:453–468CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Nozick R (1974) Anarchy, state and utopia. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  33. Nussbaum M (1998) Capabilities and human rights. Fordham Law Rev 66:273–300Google Scholar
  34. Raz J (1988) The morality of freedom. Clarendon, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rorty R (1993) Human rights, rationality, and sentimentality. In: Shute S, Hurley S (eds) On human rights: the Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993. Basic Books, New York, pp 111–134Google Scholar
  36. Schaefer B (2005) Human rights: problems with the foundationless approach. Soc Theory Pract 31:27–50Google Scholar
  37. Tasioulas J (2002) Human rights, universality, and the values of personhood: retracing Griffin’s steps. Eur J Philos 10:79–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Turner B (1993) Outline of a theory of human rights. Sociology 27:489–512CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Vlastos G (1962) Justice and equality. In: Brandt R (ed) Social justice. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, pp 31–72Google Scholar
  40. Waldron J (2006) The core of the case against judicial review. Yale Law J 115:1346–1406CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of SheffieldSheffieldUK

Personalised recommendations