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The Public's Right to Health: When Patient Rights Threaten the Commons

62 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2008 Last revised: 2 Oct 2015

Elizabeth Weeks Leonard

University of Georgia School of Law

Date Written: August 18, 2008


This Article offers a contemporary examination of traditional public health objectives to address social problems not amenable to individual resolution. Taking the tradition a step further, it defines a "public health right" that may justify certain government actions that otherwise appear to impair individual rights. For example, lawmakers are considering whether current regulations on prescription drugs should be loosened to allow terminally ill patients to access drugs before they have been tested and approved for the general public. This Article concludes that expanding access to experimental drugs would violate the public health right to scientific knowledge and new drug development. The choice of a few patients to avail themselves of untested drugs depletes the "commons" of biomedical research. The Article concludes by briefly testing the public health right against other contemporary laws intended to promote public health and welfare, finding some but not all justified.

Suggested Citation

Leonard, Elizabeth Weeks, The Public's Right to Health: When Patient Rights Threaten the Commons (August 18, 2008). Washington University Law Review, Vol. 86, p. 1335, 2009. Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Weeks Leonard (Contact Author)

University of Georgia School of Law ( email )

225 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
United States

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