Health Disparities and the Law: Wrongs in Search of a Right

18 Pages Posted: 28 May 2009 Last revised: 14 Mar 2014

See all articles by Mary Anne Bobinski

Mary Anne Bobinski

University of British Columbia (UBC) - Faculty of Law

Date Written: 2003


This article explores the promise and limits of law in addressing disparities in health. Part II summarizes the research detailing disparities in treatment, outcomes, and health status associated with gender, ethnicity/race, and socioeconomics. Part III evaluates the proper scope of public health interventions to reduce disparities in health status. Most health law scholars have focused on the problem of access to health care. Yet, access to care accounts for a relatively small percentage of a population’s health. Part III considers the utility of law in addressing determinants of health status in two general areas derived from the Healthy People 2010 framework: “behavioral” health risks and socioeconomic status. Legal approaches to behavioral health risks such as those involving tobacco, HIV, and obesity are controversial. Using law to address socioeconomic disparities would be an even more radical approach in the United States. Part IV concludes that there are great risks to retaining a narrow definition of public health and public health interventions. A narrow conception of public health restricts society’s ability to address serious problems that have a major impact on health status. The article concludes that there is little public or governmental support for a more expansive conception of public health. Interventions into behavioral risk factors for poor health status often are stymied by the competing paradigm of personal responsibility. Socioeconomic factors are even less likely to be considered the proper domain of regulation. Health status disparities thus are likely to remain a wrong in search of a right.

Keywords: Medical law, Social aspects, Equal protection, Health aspects

Suggested Citation

Bobinski, Mary Anne, Health Disparities and the Law: Wrongs in Search of a Right (2003). American Journal of Law and Medicine, Vol. 29, pp. 363-380, 2003. Available at SSRN:

Mary Anne Bobinski (Contact Author)

University of British Columbia (UBC) - Faculty of Law ( email )

1822 East Mall
Vancouver V6T 1Z1, British Columbia V6T 1Z1
604-822-2818 (Phone)

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