When the Right to Health and the Right to Religion Conflict: A Human Rights Analysis
68 Pages Posted: 20 May 2009
Date Written: May 18, 2009
Health and religion are both important to the world community. The right to each is enshrined in international law, yet the legal relationship between the rights remains largely unexplored. Often, the right to religion and the right to health support each other. Religious beliefs and practices, however, sometimes conflict with measures that are necessary for the protection and promotion of public health. In these cases, where public health is significantly affected, we argue that governments should base law and policy on scientifically proven measures. While such measures may curtail the right of citizens to engage in certain religiously based practices, narrowly-tailored restrictions are compatible with international law.
When a government is faced with a choice between a policy grounded in religion and a policy based on a conflicting, but scientifically-proven, health intervention, basing policy on science in order to protect and promote health is consistent with international law, even if it means curtailing the right of citizens to practice their religious beliefs. It should be emphasized that in the absence of a conflict between religion and science-based health interventions, there is no need or justification to restrict religious practice for health purposes. Religious viewpoints and practices generally do not clash with the practice of public health. Additionally, there will be times when the question of what is the most effective health intervention or policy cannot be answered adequately by the current state of science. In these instances, allowing the unfettered practice of religion is appropriate and comports with international human rights standards.
This article analyzes the relationship between religion and health, the scope of relevant international human rights law, and a few salient situations in which religious practice and health may conflict. Part I examines the multifaceted and largely unexplored relationships between health and religion. Part II outlines the development and current state of the rights to religion and health as defined in international human rights law. Finally, Part III assesses the relationship between the right to health and the right to religion under human rights law, and applies our analysis to three scenarios in which religious practice and health may conflict.
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