#HumanRightsDay – The History of Ethics

Today is Human Rights Day.  This day is observed  every year on 10 December – the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But how is this relevant to us physiotherapists?  Read on to explore….

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a historic document adopted by the United Nations General Assembly United Nations in 1948 which has been used subsequently as the basis of many international treaties and national constitutions. It was the result of the experience of the Second World War.

Human rights and ethics in healthcare are closely linked, both conceptually and operationally. Although there are key differences enabling each to be applied separately to public health efforts, human rights and healthcare ethics support and complement each other when applied together in efforts to improve public health. Each provides unique, valuable, and concrete guidance for the actions of national and international organisations focused on health and development.

The word ethics is etymologically derived from the Greek word „ἔθος“ /Ethos for custom, habit or usage. The term bioethics is based on Greek as well, and means βιος [bios] – life, ηθος [ethos] – custom, behaviour. Put in the context of the development of ethics, bioethics goes back to ancient times. Joined with the development of medicine and the medical profession it goes back to the oath of Hippocrates. In 1803 a work called Medical Ethics by T. Percival was published, in which the author sought a proper solution for the relationship between physician and patient.

People became aware of the need to make a philosophical-moral reflection on the new possibilities open to the biological and medical sciences in full after the Second World War, in the course of which the latest medical accomplishments were used in the genocide of millions of people. The first important moral reaction to these crimes was the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man on December 10, 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Bioethics as a new discipline appeared somewhat later.

In the 1960s there was a rapid development in the biological sciences and extraordinary technical progress based on those discoveries. In 1970 van Rensselaer Potter, an oncologist with the University of Wisconsin in Madison (USA), used the term “bioethics” for the first time in his moral reflection on the biological and medical sciences and reflected on the methodological foundations of a separate discipline.

The growth of professional autonomy in form of direct access for patients to physical therapy starting in Australia in last century’s 70’s and political turmoils regarding Apartheid in South Africa in the 90’s led to the modern version of the Ethical Principles of the World Confederation for Physical Therapy (WCPT). They were originally adopted in June 1995, and revised and/or (re)-approved in 2007, 2011 and 2015. The impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights underpinning these important ethical principles of our profession is clear to see.

Ensuring Human Rights is everyone’s business. How far have we come as a profession in Physiotherapy? Let’s take a moment and reflect on Human Rights and their impact on public health in your country. What more could be done to respect human rights and contribute to public health in your country? What more could YOU do?


  1. Gruskin, S. and Dickens, B., Human rights and ethics in public health. American Journal of Public Health. November 2006, Vol 96, No. 1
  2. Corts T.E., The Derivation of Ethos, Speech Monographs Journal, Vol.35, 1968
  3. Polskie Towarzystwo Tomasza z Akwinu. http://www.ptta.pl/pef/haslaen/b/bioethics.pdf

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