Collective Needs, Individual Rights

Published: April 7th, 2003

Category: News Briefs

Balancing collective needs and individual rights was the underlying topic of this year’s Dunwody Distinguished Lecture in Law, “When Terrorism Threatens Health: How Far are Limitations on Personal and Economic Liberties Justified,” by Lawrence Gostin (above), professor of law at Georgetown and co-director of the Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins University. Since 9-11, civil liberty is a hot issue, and one uniting unlikely political bedfellows. “The U.S. always has been rights-oriented,” Gostin said. “The political left focuses on individual rights, autonomy and privacy; while the right focuses on freedom of contract and enterprise. Both emphasize freedoms, just a different set.” Gostin finds both sides tend to view bureaucracy similarly: inefficient and with a tendency toward oppressive regulations. Partly due to this, Homeland Security-related policies in areas such as public health policy and bio-terrorism have drawn fire from both sides of the political aisle. “Public health laws are deficient,” Gostin said. “Most critical agents of bio-terrorism are unreported because of privacy legislation.” Gostin was named prior to 9-11 to the committee writing the Model Emergency Health Powers Act — now adopted by 22 states — involving vaccination, medical treatment, quarantine and hospital supplies. “The Homeland Security Act is controversial, and the Model Act has been viciously attacked by people across the political spectrum,” Gostin said. “Government has always made health policy decisions covertly, people just didn’t realize that.” “In these times, we can’t have it all in terms of personal rights and national security; both sides must give up something. Each citizen must ask themselves, ‘What obligation do I have to make the U.S. safer, and what personal interests will I forgo?’ This is a tough question, but one we all ultimately have to answer,” Gostin concluded.

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