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Public office and private lives: Do politicians deserve medical privacy?

by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

The medical status of elected officials is again in the news. The recent stroke suffered by former President Ford, questions about the heart disease history of vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, and the very public and ongoing discussion of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's diagnosis of prostate cancer all raise questions about how much the public deserves to know about the medical history and health status of political candidates. Should voters use physical or mental health information about candidates in deciding whom to support? How far should the media go in attempting to uncover current and past medical information, and how much information should candidates be compelled to disclose?

Center for Bioethics

What's your opinion?

There is an odd tension in American society between the near reverence for personal privacy and the expectation that the lives of public officials be open for almost limitless scrutiny. This tension is increasing, with proposals at the federal and state levels calling for increased protection of personal information while at the same time we clamor more than ever for the sordid details of politicians’ personal lives.

Media questions and the right to say no

Can a candidate just say no to the media requests for medical history? Politicians have discovered that isn't a good idea, having learned the lesson of one-time democratic vice presidential hopeful Thomas Eagleton. During the 1972 presidential campaign, it came out that Eagleton may have undergone electroshock therapy, a treatment for some mental illnesses. The disclosure was humiliating and effectively ended his political career.

In today’s political environment, saying no is tantamount to admitting there is something to hide and so many candidates have taken to releasing sometimes voluminous medical records in an effort to answer questions and thwart further digging.

Even so, the media have a reputation for pushing the right to know to the point of trying to uncover every detail of political candidates’ lives, with occasional significant impact. Financial impropriety and marital infidelity have led to the downfall of prominent members of Congress -- recent Speakers of the House have succumbed to one or both -- and have dogged President Bill Clinton.

Worries about fitness or just plain voyeurism?

There are real issues about the assuring the ongoing fitness of our elected officials to serve -- and public disclosure certainly has a role to play. For instance, information about the medical status of the U.S. president is rightfully closely guarded, both to protect his privacy and assure the national security. But there must be a sense that if the president were to become incapacitated, the facts would be made public and the orderly transfer of power would take place.

This is a far cry from insisting that every aspect of public officials’ lives be disclosed -- including complete medical records -- and creating the expectation that life after election will be lived in a fishbowl.

It seems that all we really need to know is whether a candidate is physically and psychologically fit to hold office, an assessment most people would be comfortable leaving to trained and unbiased professionals. Once a candidate is pronounced "fit to serve" any digging for further information starts to look more like reality-based programming than investigative journalism.

It may be interesting to some subset of the public to know a candidate’s cholesterol or whether he visited a therapist at some point in the past, but we need to ask whether it really matters in terms of someone’s qualifications for the job. If not, then we must admit that voyeurism is not a good enough reason to violate medical privacy.


How much does the public deserve to know about the medical history and health status of political candidates? News items about former President Ford's recent stroke, the heart disease history of vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's diagnosis of prostate cancer all point out the tension between medical privacy and the public's right to know. Should voters use physical or mental health information about candidates in deciding whom to support? How far should the media go in attempting to uncover current and past medical information, and how much information should candidates be compelled to disclose?



Post your opinion here.


Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.


"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.


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