Vulnerability and Justice in Global Health Emergencies

Muirhead Tower - Room 109
Wednesday 25 April 2018 (15:15-17:00)

Dr Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra  (University of Edinburgh)

Dr Ganguli-Mitra is Chancellor’s Fellow in Legal and Ethical Aspects of Biomedicine at the Edinburgh School of Law.

Her current research is based on exploring the concepts of exploitation and vulnerability, as well as various approaches to justice as applied to global health topics, including surrogacy, sex-selection and global health emergencies. She is currently developing a new Wellcome Trust-funded project on vulnerability and justice in the context of global health emergencies.


In bioethical literature, the concept of vulnerability has been criticised as being simultaneously too broad and too narrow (Levine et al., 2004). While the term has not lost its normative relevance, its link with structural and other forms of background injustices remains under-scrutinized. Global health emergencies provide a particularly compelling setting to examine this relationship, given that individuals and groups are differentially affected by health emergencies, wars and disasters. Such crises also exacerbate existing inequalities and injustices (Chung and Hunt, 2012). For example, as the case of Salome Karwah Harris (the Liberian nurse who was at the forefront of the Ebola fight and died during childbirth in 2017) illustrates, gender injustices can be particularly acute. Women, who are already socio-economically marginalised, frequently bear the burden of further injustice and oppression. In this paper, we use several examples of global health emergencies to revisit theoretical and conceptual approaches to vulnerability. We do so by combining retrospective case scenario analysis, including the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, as well as the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, with the concept of vulnerability (as developed by Mackenzie et al., Hurst, and others), and with theoretical approaches to structural, systemic and epistemic injustice (with particular reference to the work of Iris Young and Miranda Fricker). This analysis will allow us to articulate a nuanced understanding of the concept of vulnerability, as well as to suggest when and how the term allows us to diagnose cases of injustice, associated responsibilities and responsible actors.


  • Ryoa Chung and Matthew Hunt (2012), 'Justice and Health Inequalities in Humanitarian Crises: Structured Health Vulnerabilities and Natural Diasters' in Patti Tamara Lenard and Christine Straehle, Health Inequalities and Global Justice, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Carol Levine, Ruth Faden, Christine Grady, Dale Hammerschmidt, Lisa Eckenwiler, Jeremy Sugarman, 'The limitations of "vulnerability" as a protection for human research participants', Am J Bioeth 2004, 4(3): 44-9.

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