The genesis of public health ethics

Bioethics. 2004 Nov;18(6):473-92. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2004.00412.x.


As bioethics emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and began to have enormous impacts on the practice of medicine and research--fuelled, by broad socio-political changes that gave rise to the struggles of women, African Americans, gay men and lesbians, and the antiauthoritarianism impulse that characterised the New Left in democratic capitalist societies--little attention was given to the question of the ethics of public health. This was all the more striking since the core values and practices of public health, often entailing the subordination of the individual for the common good, seemed opposed to the ideological impulses of bioethics. Of what relevance is autonomy-focused bioethics for public health, with its mix of justifications including those that are either implicitly or explicitly paternalistic or that seek to impose strictures on individuals and communities in the name of collective welfare? To examine the deep divide between the central commitments of bioethics and the values that animate the practice of public health, we focus on a series of controversies implicating the concepts of privacy, liberty, and paternalism. Recognising the role of moral values in decision-making was a signal contribution of bioethics in its formative period. Over the past three decades a broad array of perspectives emerged under the rubric of bioethics but individualism remains central. As we commence the process of shaping an ethics of public health, it is clear that bioethics is the wrong place to start when thinking about the balances required in defence of the public's health.

MeSH terms

  • AIDS Serodiagnosis
  • Bioethics* / trends
  • Coercion
  • Confidentiality
  • Epidemiologic Studies*
  • Freedom
  • Health Policy
  • Human Rights
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • Internationality
  • Mandatory Programs / ethics*
  • Medical Records
  • Paternalism / ethics*
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Privacy
  • Public Health Practice / ethics*
  • Social Responsibility