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She used to want to work in theater, but her career took a different direction: Anniek de Ruijter was appointed professor of Health Law and Policy at the UvA last September. She is keen to investigate how we can measure the effect of law on health. She also wants to make a case for experiential education at the Amsterdam Law School.
Photographer: Nieke Martens

‘Disease and death are part of life, and no one has a right to eternal health’, says De Ruijter. Still, we want to do everything we can to ensure that we protect and promote health, both for individuals, and for the population as a whole.’ But at what cost? And how does this relate to other priorities, such as self-determination and freedom, the protection of the rule of law, or the right to education. ‘During the outbreak of corona, you could clearly see these dilemma’s play out: on the one hand, the government wants to do everything it can to prevent the spread of the virus, but on the other hand, they cannot just close the schools indefinitely.’

In addition to these questions, the actual effect of law and policy on people's health is also central to De Ruijter’s research. ‘In the process of health legislation there is often the presumption that these rules will promote health, but how do we actually ascertain this?’ This requires groundbreaking interdisciplinary research and new research frameworks that include law and policy as a social determinant.

For example, during corona-outbreak, rules were aimed at helping people with an acute infection, but what about the collateral of these rules on health? Examples of problems are delayed care and the isolation of the elderly and vulnerable. We are faced with a major challenge to properly investigate such tradeoffs.’

Will anything actually change now that De Ruijter is no longer an associate professor but a full professor? ‘My role is going to look a little different,’ she replies. ‘Over a year ago I founded the Law Center for Health and Life. I now see an expanding role for myself in also facilitating the research of others.’

De Ruijter’s ambition with this Center is to gain understanding of social issues in health and regulation. The impact of technology, Europeanization and globalization, and the interaction of health with the living environment are direct examples. She hopes that this will further enrich the Master's degree at the Amsterdam Law School in Health Law.

Scientists should not pretend to be politicians

Political engagement

De Ruijter has recently become full professor, but she is certainly no stranger at the UvA. Already as a student, she was co-founder of student party UvASociaal. Are we going to see that political involvement reflected in her position as professor? ‘Certainly, with regard to the future of the UvA and the societal role that we, as an academic community, play with our research and education,’ she states with conviction. ‘Although I also think that, from a scientific point of view, we should balance this and not start acting too much as if we are in the political arena. It is important that we maintain academic freedom and curiosity. And politicians deal with a different context than scientists do, when it comes to policy choices. Knowing more doesn't always mean you know better. Certainly not considering that politicians face very different social choices. As a scientist you shouldn't pretend to be a politician.’

More attention for the lawyer as an individual is a responsibility for all law schools in the Netherlands

But De Ruijter has not forgotten about student interests either. ‘Things that I thought were important as a student are still important. For example, the fact that students are seen and taken seriously; and that education inspires them.’ According to De Ruijter, experiential law education contributes to these objectives. Together with fellow teachers at the Amsterdam Law School, she founded the Amsterdam Law Practice in all legal Master’s programmes in Amsterdam and this year they were awarded the Dutch Higher Education Prize. This programme focuses on developing the professional identity of lawyers. The point is that students learn how to deal with difficult ethical dilemmas, but also how to develop themselves as a responsible lawyer, including skills and knowledge. De Ruijter: ‘The lawyer as an individual makes choices that determine what the law can mean in society. More attention for the lawyer as an individual, instead of just the system and the social context of the law, is a task for all law education in the Netherlands.’

Photographer: Nieke Martens

When De Ruijter was a law student herself, little attention was paid to the importance of your own choices and who you are as a lawyer. ‘I do hope that I have developed some professional legal skills in this regard through trial and error since, especially through my work at Bureau Clara Wichmann, where we litigate for the advancement of women in society. We always ask: what is the role of law in people’s lives, and how can we as lawyers make a difference here?’