Legal Remedies to Address Stigma-Based Health Inequalities in the United States: Challenges and Opportunities

Original Scholarship

Policy Points:

  • Stigma is an established driver of population-level health outcomes. Antidiscrimination laws can generate or alleviate stigma and, thus, are a critical component in the study of improving population health.
  • Currently, antidiscrimination laws are often underenforced and are sometimes conceptualized by courts and lawmakers in ways that are too narrow to fully reach all forms of stigma and all individuals who are stigmatized.
  • To remedy these limitations, we propose the creation of a new population-level surveillance system of antidiscrimination law and its enforcement, a central body to enforce antidiscrimination laws, as well as a collaborative research initiative to enhance the study of the linkages between health and antidiscrimination law in the future.

Context: Stigma is conceptualized as a fundamental cause of population health inequalities. Antidiscrimination law is one important lever that can influence stigma-based health inequities, and yet several challenges currently limit the law’s potential to address them.

Methods: To determine whether antidiscrimination law adequately addresses stigma, we compared antidiscrimination law for its applicability to the domains and statuses where stigma is experienced according to the social science literature. To further examine whether law is a sufficient remedy for stigma, we reviewed law literature and government sources for the adequacy of antidiscrimination law enforcement. We also reviewed the law literature for critiques of antidiscrimination law, which revealed conceptual limits of antidiscrimination
law that we applied to the context of stigma.

Findings: In this article, we explored the importance of antidiscrimination law in addressing the population-level health consequences of stigma and found two key challenges—conceptualization and enforcement—that currently limit its potential. We identified several practical solutions to make antidiscrimination law a more available tool to tackle the health inequities caused by stigma, including (1) the development of a new surveillance system for antidiscrimination laws and their enforcement, (2) an interdisciplinary working group to study the impact of antidiscrimination laws on health, and (3) a central agency tasked with monitoring enforcement of antidiscrimination laws.

Conclusions: Antidiscrimination law requires better tailoring based on the evidence of who is affected by stigma, as well as where and how stigma occurs, or it will be a poor tool for remedying stigma, regardless of its level of enforcement. Further interdisciplinary research is needed to identify the ways in which law can be crafted into a better tool for redressing the health harms of stigma and to delimit clearer boundaries for when law is and is not the appropriate remedy for these stigma-induced inequities.

Keywords: stigma, antidiscrimination law, civil rights protections, population health.

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DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12391
Published in 2019