When the Right to Health and the Right to Religion Conflict: A Human Rights Analysis

68 Pages Posted: 20 May 2009

See all articles by Lesley Stone

Lesley Stone

Georgetown University Law Center

Lance Gable

Wayne State University Law School

Tara Gingerich

Oxfam America

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.

Suggested Citation

Stone, Lesley and Gable, Lance and Gingerich, Tara, When the Right to Health and the Right to Religion Conflict: A Human Rights Analysis (May 18, 2009). Michigan State University College of Law Journal of International Law, Vol. 247, 2003-2004, Wayne State University Law School Research Paper No. 09-09, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1406561

Lesley Stone

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

Lance Gable (Contact Author)

Wayne State University Law School ( email )

471 Palmer
Detroit, MI 48202
United States

Tara Gingerich

Oxfam America ( email )

226 Causeway St., 5th Floor
Boston, MA 02114-2206

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