Former Head Of The American Public Health Association Worries That Some Public Health Programs May Infringe On Civil Liberties

June 30, 1998

In the July/August issue of Public Health Reports, two public health studies designed to take advantage of the institutional gathering of individuals with high-risk behaviors are used as the focal point in a commentary by Eugene Feingold on the interaction between individual liberties and public health.

In the first study, Seema Shah, Richard Hoffman, and other researchers screened women admitted to a Denver Detoxification Center for pregnancy and contraceptive use. Because alcohol and drug abuse during pregnancy are known to be associated with range of adverse consequences, including low birth weight and fetal alcohol syndrome, the researchers hoped to determine if the women at the center represented an opportunity for a targeted education and awareness intervention.

In the second study, Harvey Siegal et al. surveyed participants attending a drinking driver's program to determine whether such participants were at increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases and whether and how sensitive information on their sexual histories might be gleaned from them.

Dr. Feingold, a past president of the American Public Health Association, points out that both studies used law enforcement-related programs to reach populations that could then be screened for public health purposes, making participation in screening less than truly voluntary. Feingold questions: "Is public health's claim of benevolence suspect--a cloak for the imposition of the claimant's values on the supposed beneficiary--Are we more attentive to what we see as needs, the individual's or society's, than to what we see as the individual's rights?"

While Feingold finds that the programs described in the two studies ultimately were not coercive, he concludes that public health practitioners need to ask themselves "whether the public interest in protecting civil liberties outweighs the public interest served by a particular public health program."

CONTACT: Eugene Feingold, PhD, JD; tel. 734-662-8788; fax 734-662-2713; e-mail <feingold@umich.edu>. Seema Shah, MD MSPH; tel. 303-692-0095; e-mail <seema.shah@state.co.us>. Harvey Siegal, PhD, tel. 937-775-2850; e-mail <hsiegal@sirius.wright.edu>
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Public Health Reports

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