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VI - Justice, Ethics and American Health

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 August 2023

Martin Halliwell
Affiliation:
University of Leicester
Sophie A. Jones
Affiliation:
University of Strathclyde
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Summary

The politics of health in the United States often plays out in the charged space where abstract matters of law and constitutional rights collide with the realities of health care delivery, political manoeuvres and everyday life. Health, often presumed to be an uncontroversial good, is in fact a contested label, particularly when it comes to hot button topics at the heart of America's ideological divide: of these, the subjects of abortion, firearms and mass incarceration are all addressed in this section. Claiming any of these cases to be a ‘public health issue’ might be interpreted as a move towards depoliticization, or at least de-escalation, attempting to draw together both sides of a polarized debate in the shared arena of health. However, as these chapters elucidate, the promotion of health is rarely an ideologically neutral project. Enduring debates over whether women's health is promoted or depleted through abortion rights, whether gun violence should be addressed as individual or social pathology, or whether incarceration protects or harms the health of the nation, all demonstrate the folly of seeking common ground by labelling something a ‘health care issue’. Similarly, appeals to statistical evidence or scientific neutrality in practices and discourses of public health often occlude the discriminatory underpinnings of these constructs. The staking of identity claims around race and age is fraught with the violent legacies of historical attempts to find biological bases for social hierarchies. Identity based movements for social justice in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have had to contend with these legacies while articulating alternative bonds of solidarity and community. In this section, scholars from the fields of law, history, rhetorical studies, sociology and medical anthropology contend, in diverse ways, with the health politics of fraught ethical debates and movements as they seek justice for marginalized subjects.

Legal scholar Mary Ziegler's chapter opens this section by interrogating the shift from rights to health in battles over abortion in the United States. Re-evaluating the widespread understanding that abortion is primarily a question of government, religion and constitutional law in the US, Ziegler argues that, in the years since the 1973 Roe v. Wade US Supreme Court decision secured a limited constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, both defenders and opponents of this right have frequently turned to arguments about public health rather than to questions of ethics, morals or abstract rights.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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