Human rights and health

  • Although there is no specific right to health in the European Convention on Human Rights, a wide range of issues relating to health have been dealt with by the European court.
  • The court’s case-law requires states to safeguard people’s mental and physical well-being in many different circumstances.
  • This includes making sure that people can access
    the healthcare they need, they have a say in the treatment they receive and they can get justice when mistakes are made.



Wider availability of drug substitution therapy in prisons

The European court ruled that the German authorities violated the human rights convention by refusing to give drug substitution therapy to a prisoner suffering from long-term addiction, even though there was a strong indication it was the treatment he needed. Germany responded by making such therapy more available in prisons.

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Fair compensation for victims of infected blood scandal

The European court ruled that Italy’s decision to stop victims from receiving inflation-adjusted compensation breached their human rights. Many relied on the payments to cover ongoing medical costs. The court’s ‘pilot judgment’ found that many others had potentially been affected by the decision, resulting in Italy making back payments totalling hundreds of millions of euros to victims.

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Health reforms after a pregnant woman was denied life-saving care

Pregnant mother Menekşe Şentürk died after being denied treatment that could have saved her life. The European Court of Human Rights found that she was a victim of medical negligence. This judgment and others led Turkey to improve its healthcare system and make it more accessible for people who cannot afford urgent care.

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A mother’s fight for her child’s life leads to better guidance on parental consent to treatment

Doctors thought David Glass was dying – but his mother, Carol, did not think so. The European court ruled that the UK medical authorities should have sought approval from the courts before giving David treatment that Carol had not agreed to. The judgment led the UK to update its guidance on consent to treatment in circumstances when parents object to the proposed treatment of their...

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Ban lifted on medically assisted reproduction for healthy carriers of serious genetic diseases

As healthy carriers of a serious genetic disease, Rosetta Costa and Walter Pavan were unable to undergo medically assisted reproduction under Italian law. The European court ruled that the law in this area was inconsistent, and in breach of the couple’s rights. This judgment led Italy to lift the ban, which means couples like Rosetta and Walter can now access the treatment they need.

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Justice for widower whose rights were breached in assisted dying case

The German courts refused to fully consider Ulrich Koch’s complaints against a decision to refuse his late wife’s request for help to end her life with dignity. The European court found that Ulrich’s rights had been breached. Ulrich then took successful legal action in Germany thanks to the European court’s ruling in his case.

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Fair trial breach leads to better approach to resolving medical disputes

Iceland’s highest court overturned a legal ruling which found that medical mistakes had been made immediately after the birth of Sara Lind Eggertsdóttir. The European court found that the proceedings were unfair because the Icelandic court trusted opinions from an expert body that lacked neutrality. This judgment led Iceland to improve the way its courts handle disputes over medical issues.

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Compensation for North Sea divers denied access to information about health risks

Hundreds of divers suffered long-term health problems after taking part in diving operations during Norway’s “pioneer era” of oil exploration. The European court found that Norway had violated their human rights because they were denied access to information about health risks. The judgment allowed the divers to secure more compensation from the Norwegian government.

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Forced sterilisation of Roma woman leads to stricter rules on consent to treatment

V.C. was a victim of forced sterilisation, a practice that persisted in Slovakia for decades, disproportionately affecting Roma women. The European court ruled that the procedure, carried out whilst V.C. was giving birth, amounted to ill-treatment. Slovakia brought in new rules on patients’ consent to treatment after it emerged that many other Roma women had been unlawfully sterilised.

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Woman wins right to legally give birth at home

Anna Ternovszky did not want to give birth in a hospital, but any health professional who helped with a home birth risked prosecution. The European court ruled that this legal uncertainty breached Anna’s rights. Hungary responded to the judgment by passing a new law allowing soon-to-be mothers to give birth at home.

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Improvements to prison healthcare after inmate with epilepsy denied proper treatment

Robert Kaprykowski, who has severe epilepsy, struggled to get the help he needed in prison, even though doctors warned that his life was at risk without specialist care. The European court found that the Polish authorities failed to provide Robert with proper medical care. This amounted to ill-treatment. Following the judgment, Poland made substantial improvements to prison healthcare.

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Landmark judgment leads to change in abortion law

C., a cancer survivor, was unable to find out whether her pregnancy posed a risk to her life. The European court ruled that Ireland’s lack of an accessible and effective process by which C. could have established whether she qualified for a lawful abortion breached her human rights. The judgment led to Ireland changing the law on abortion.

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Safeguards for vulnerable people after autistic man was illegally detained in hospital

H.L., who has autism, was kept in hospital as an “informal patient” after he suffered a mental health crisis. The European court ruled that this amounted to detention and UK law had not sufficiently protected him. In response, the UK introduced legal safeguards for the placement and detention in psychiatric facilities of vulnerable people who cannot make legal decisions for themselves.

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Justice for the family of asbestos poisoning victim

Hans Moor was exposed to asbestos during his work in the 1960s and 70s. This gave him cancer, which was diagnosed in 2004. Hans Moor died in 2005, aged 58. Just before his death, Mr Moor had brought a claim for damages against his former employer for failing to take precautions against exposure to asbestos. The claim was continued by his wife and children.

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Same-sex couple win discrimination case over health insurance refusal

P.B. and J.S. wanted to be jointly covered by J.S.’s civil service health insurance scheme, but P.B.’s request was refused because he was a same-sex partner. The European court ruled that Austria had unfairly discriminated against P.B. and J.S., up to the point when the law on civil service insurance cover was changed to no longer distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

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Parents win fight for justice following their son’s death

Gregor Šilih was 20 when he died in hospital. His parents believed that medical negligence was to blame. They launched legal action to find out the truth. Thirteen years later their claim had still not been resolved. The European court ruled that the authorities had failed to take effective steps to discover the truth. The case led to reforms to stop the same thing from happening again.

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Justice for woman whose private health data was leaked to journalists

Gitana Biriuk took successful legal action against a newspaper that disclosed her HIV status. She only received a small amount in damages because of legal limits on what could be awarded. The European court ruled that these limits failed to protect Gitana’s right to privacy. By the time of the judgment, Lithuania had removed the upper limit on compensation awarded by its courts in such...

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Clearer rules on consent after a widow was not told about the removal of tissue from her late husband’s body

Dzintra Elberte discovered that tissue had been removed from her late husband’s body without her knowledge or consent. The European court ruled that the law in this area was unclear and open to abuse, and that Dzintra suffered unduly because of what had happened. Latvia responded to the judgment by bringing in clearer rules on consent for donation.

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Factsheets on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights:

 Cannabis-based medication PDF (143 Ko)

 COVID-19 health crisis PDF (253 Ko)

 Detention and mental health PDF (325 Ko)

 End of life and the ECHR PDF (152 Ko)

 Health PDF (264 Ko)

 Persons with disabilities and the ECHR PDF (303 Ko)

 Prisoners' health-related rights PDF (474 Ko)

 Reproductive rights PDF (324 Ko)