Access to surgical care is increasingly recognized as an integral aspect of healthcare, and therefore is evolving into a normative derivation of human right to health. The ICESCR Article 12.1 and 12.2 define the human right to health as "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health" In the August 2000, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) interpreted this to mean "right to the enjoyment of a variety of facilities, goods, services, and conditions necessary for the realization of the highest attainable health". Surgical care can be thereby viewed as a positive right – an entitlement to protective healthcare.
Woven through the International Human and Health Rights literature is the right to be free from surgical disease. The 1966 ICESCR Article 12.2a described the need for "provision for the reduction of the stillbirth-rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child" which was subsequently interpreted to mean “requiring measures to improve… emergency obstetric services”. Article 12.2d of the ICESCR stipulates the need for “the creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness”, and is interpreted in the 2000 comment to include timely access to “basic preventative, curative services… for appropriate treatment of injury and disability.". Obstetric care shares close ties with reproductive rights, which includes access to reproductive health.
Surgeons and public health advocates, such as Kelly McQueen, have described surgery as "Integral to the right to health". This is reflected in the establishment of the WHO Global Initiative for Emergency and Essential Surgical Care in 2005, the 2013 formation of the Lancet Commission for Global Surgery, the 2015 World Bank Publication of Volume 1 of its
Disease Control Priorities "Essential Surgery", and the 2015 World Health Assembly 68.15 passing of the Resolution for Strengthening Emergency and Essential Surgical Care and Anesthesia as a Component of
Universal Health Coverage. The Lancet Commission for Global Surgery outlined the need for access to "available, affordable, timely and safe" surgical and anesthesia care; dimensions paralleled in ICESCR General Comment No. 14, which similarly outlines need for available, accessible, affordable and timely healthcare.