Medicalization, “Normal Function,” and the Definition of Health

Authored by: Rebecca Kukla

The Routledge Companion to Bioethics

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415896665
eBook ISBN: 9780203804971
Adobe ISBN: 9781136644849


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“Health” is an intuitive notion and not a technical term. The institutions of medicine are designed, first and foremost, to promote, restore, and protect health. The protection of health and distribution of health services is, almost all societies would agree, an important component of justice. Yet it has proven surprisingly difficult to come up with a rigorous definition of health that accommodates all of our core intuitions about what work the notion should do for us. Some theorists have tried to carve out a biological notion of health and disease based in one way or another on the “normal functioning” of the body and its systems and parts. Others have tried to understand health and disease as socially constructed notions, and have focused upon social and institutional processes of “medicalization,” wherein clusters of symptoms are identified as unified diseases and brought under medical surveillance and management. Both the biological and the social approaches to defining health face serious roadblocks and objections, as do various hybrid accounts. In this chapter, I will look at some influential attempts to define health, explore exactly why it is so difficult to come up with a satisfactory definition, and finally, propose a tentative alternative definition of health.

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