Medicalization and the New Civil Rights

Document Type



Ethics, Medicine and Public Health





This essay describes how individuals have increasingly used the language of medicine to seek legal rights and benefits. These claims have often been applied to conditions that would not have been cognizable even a few years ago, including claims involving gender identity, homelessness, and poverty. While scholars have focused piecemeal on several of these specific areas, I offer a qualitative and quantitative overview to argue that these are part of a larger phenomenon, which I term ‘‘medical civil rights.’’ Further, I depart sharply from existing American legal scholarship by defending medical rights-seeking. Scholars that have explicitly addresses the question of medicalization in the legal literature are critical of the phenomenon. Nonetheless, I argue that the legal protections that medical status brings can be more powerful than those offered in the context of poverty, unemployment, and even race discrimination. Further, society often treats most perceived medical disadvantage as not being the fault of those its affects, especially compared to certain disadvantaged groups such as the unemployed or the poor. Finally, medical language can offer a sense of objectivity and legitimacy for those invoking it. These benefits may far outweigh the disadvantages of medical rights-seeking.


Alternate title (Fr.) of original article: La médicalisation et les nouveaux droits civils.

"© 2019 Published by Elsevier Masson SAS."

Corrigendum: "The authors regret that the published title was incorrect. The new title should be Medical Civil Rights in the United States and Beyond.’’

"© 2020 Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved."