Life, liberty, and the pursuit of healthiness

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of healthiness

The fierce debate between Gov. Michelle Bachmann and Gov. Rick Perry over requiring young girls to be vaccinated against human papillomavirus raises a very interesting question. If state and federal governments use their power – not to mention the law – to intervene in public health issues, is that a “violation of liberty interest,” as Bachmann put it, or is it a necessary measure for the public good?

This question runs deep through every demographic and every population across the country. Can we draw a clear boundary that our law-making bodies should not cross in the name of public health?

On the one hand, most agree that the requirement for public school children to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) and diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (DTP) is an important method for keeping all of our children safe and healthy.

However, there are many who question the extension of such requirements to HPV vaccines – which protect women from certain cervical cancers – because of the social and moral impact such vaccinations might have on young teenage girls, and the potential destruction of parental choice to which this could lead.

There are serious public health risks requiring immediate federal attention. Yet there are also those for whom governmental intervention could qualify as a “violation of liberty interest.”

Obesity-related health conditions place financial pressure on our health-care system to the tune of over $150 billion a year – more than all types of cancer combined, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

In an effort to ease this pressure and dissuade people from drinking high-calorie soft drinks, a number of governors and other officials have proposed a tax on sugary beverages. Sen. Shane Cultra (R-Ornaga, Ill.) has even proposed a tax on parents with obese children, and suggested removing the children from their parents’ custody and placing them in healthier foster homes.

Have the skyrocketing rates of obesity and related diseases such as diabetes become so out of control that we must now revoke the freedom of some individuals to protect themselves and their children? The highest statewide obesity figures for U.S. adults in 1990 were below 10 percent. Between then and 2010, the lowest obesity rates jumped to 20-24 percent. The highest rates topped 30 percent.

There is clearly cause for national alarm and action. Nevertheless, many would argue that any legislative measure infringes on the rights of the healthy. Must they be taxed on the occasional treats they enjoy because their obese neighbor might be a walking time bomb?

This obesity debate evokes vivid memories of a time when there were smoking sections on airplanes, and tobacco companies ruled the billboards and television screens. To this day, there are ongoing discussions about whether the government is so involved in trying to solve the problem that it crosses lines that step on “liberty interest.”

Of course, recent studies do testify to the tremendous decline in smoking rates across the country, seemingly a direct result of increased taxes on cigarettes and the millions of dollars in anti-smoking advertising campaigns. Yet, some argue that the severe drop is really more attributable to education, that raising awareness about the health risks of smoking deters most people from even considering it.

Those same people would argue that all we need today is to move full speed ahead with anti-obesity education. Yet others would contend that anti-smoking education has been out there for decades, but has had no impact; only once the government got involved did the rates start to drop. They would mock anti-obesity education, which has also been out there for years, and call it insufficient. Pointing to the rising obesity rates, they would demand more legal action.

The persistent efforts to ban circumcision are another case in point. Such proposals not only directly attacks the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of religion, but they also presents us with the question, once again, of how far is too far.

The overarching question remains: When is it absolutely necessary for government to intervene on behalf of the public good? Is there a point beyond which we should tell government to mind its own business?

It would seem that only when a particular group of people or organization(s) can be held responsible for a severe impediment to public health should we be willing to forgo carefully selected freedoms that will directly bring our health back to order. However, when the correlation between the cause and the resulting health-risk is not agreed upon by a significant number of health-care professionals, or if government intervention will have serious moral implications, it is difficult to justify any “violation of liberty interest” until further research is done and more ethical conversations are had.