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Public Health Education Needs a Human Rights Focus

August 25, 2020
Gillings School of Global Public Health

“Human rights [are] raised frequently to signal devotion to justice, but employed rarely in policy, programming or practice. As advocates respond to the public health injustices of […] an unprecedented pandemic, human rights education must be an essential foundation to hold governments accountable…”

These words are part of the opening paragraph of a new commentary published in The Lancet Public Health on the future of human rights education within the field of public health. The co-authors include three students — representing the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels — and a faculty member, all with the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Portrait of Hanna E. Huffstetler
Hanna E. Huffstetler
Portrait of Tamira Daniely
Tamira Daniely
Portrait of Caitlin Williams
Caitlin Williams

“This group has been thinking about public health and human rights for some time now,” says Caitlin R. Williams, a doctoral candidate in the School’s Department of Maternal and Child Health. “We started working together through the development of a new textbook, Foundations of Global Health & Human Rights, which serves as an introduction to the field of health and human rights for students like us.”

Williams was joined by Tamira Daniely, an undergraduate studying public policy and global health, and Hanna E. Huffstetler, a Master of Public Health candidate, who also contributed to the textbook and commentary.

“As the textbook was being finalized, the COVID-19 pandemic was just getting started,” Williams notes. “Suddenly, all of the things discussed in the textbook were in the news every day. Governments all over the world were violating rights, supposedly in the name of public health — doing things like locking people up to ensure quarantine or separating moms and babies to prevent COVID transmission — even though these kinds of repressive measures actually make things worse.”

Portrait of Dr. Benjamin Mason Meier
Dr. Benjamin Mason Meier

Benjamin Mason Meier is an associate professor of public policy at UNC and an adjunct associate professor of health policy and management with the Gillings School. He and Lawrence Gostin are the editors of Foundations of Global Health & Human Rights and co-authors of the Lancet Public Health commentary, titled “The Shibboleth of Human Rights in Public Health.”

“Drawing from our textbook, this commentary brings together public health students at various stages of their education to make a forceful argument for expanding human rights training in public health,” Meier says.

In explaining the justification for the  piece, Meier notes that: “Human rights have become a ‘shibboleth’ of public health. While the word originates in the Old Testament, ‘shibboleth’ refers today to an expression that is used frequently but lacks meaning. In the absence of formal human rights education, we are concerned that ‘human rights’ have become little more than a slogan in public health. Public health practitioners often claim that ‘health is a human right,’ but they lack the detailed knowledge necessary to implement human rights in public policy.”

Williams points out that her sub-field of sexual and reproductive health is littered with notorious examples of human rights abuses committed in the name of improved public health. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the taking of Henrietta Lacks’ cells without her consent and the forcible removal of Native American children from their families all were overseen or tacitly endorsed by public health officials.

“It’s easy for us to say that these things happened in a different time, but we don’t always realize the ways in which these kinds of practices continue,” Williams says. “In the pandemic response, we’re seeing deportation, family separation and the erosion of patient privacy clocked in the rhetoric of public health in ways that will outlast the current emergency. We’ll talk about human rights until we’re blue in the face, but when it comes to crafting policy, especially in the midst of crisis, rights continue to fall to the wayside.”

“For many years, rights were seen as an obstacle to public health,” she adds. “Yet one of the most important lessons that the HIV/AIDS pandemic taught us was that human rights and public health are complementary. If we start with human rights — with the fundamental premise that all people are equal in dignity — then we don’t get to this place where we commit rights abuses in the name of health.”

In the commentary, the authors describe the specific kinds of curricular changes that can be implemented to center rights in public health education and build a strong, rights-based foundation for the next generation of public health leaders.

Read the full commentary in The Lancet Public Health.

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