Medicalization and the New Civil Rights
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
In the last several decades, individuals have advanced civil rights claims that rely on the language of medicine. This Article is the first to define and defend these “medical civil rights” as a unified phenomenon.
Individuals have increasingly used the language of medicine to seek rights and benefits, often for conditions that would not have been cognizable even a few years ago. For example, litigants have claimed that discrimination against transgender individuals constitutes illegal disability discrimination. Others argued that their fatigue constitutes chronic fatigue syndrome (which was, at the time, a novel and contested diagnosis) to obtain social security disability benefits. Recently, progressive states have used Medicaid funds to address homelessness, claiming that homelessness is a medical problem, complete with a diagnosis code. While some scholarship focuses piecemeal on specific areas—such as obesity or trans rights—I use qualitative and quantitative evidence to show that these claims, which rely on their medical pedigree for their power, are part of a larger phenomenon, which I term “medical civil rights.”
After defining the phenomenon and its scope, the core of the Article departs sharply from existing legal scholarship by defending medical rights-seeking. The piecemeal legal scholarship that explicitly addresses the question of medicalization uniformly critiques the use of medical civil rights. However, this siloed perspective has obscured the broad benefits these rights can provide. The legal protections that accompany medical status are more robust than those other vulnerable groups receive, such as the poor, unemployed, or even racial minorities. Further, compared to disadvantaged groups such as the unemployed or the poor, society holds the medically disadvantaged as relatively blameless for any disadvantage. Finally, medical language creates a sense of objectivity and legitimacy for those invoking them. These underappreciated benefits may far outweigh the disadvantages of medical rights-seeking. As it is invoked to liberate rather than oppress, medicine itself might become a site of jurisgenesis through which those invoking it conceive of themselves as rights-holding individuals.