Experts urge importance of individual rights in anti-bioterrorism policies

Dan Haugen

Health experts at a campus forum Wednesday called for caution and increased public debate when proceeding with anti-bioterrorism policies, including immunizations.

Boston University health law professor Wendy Mariner headlined the talk, part of the Faegre & Benson Lecture Series on Law, Health & the Life Sciences. Mariner said public health efforts, such as immunization policies, should not ignore individual patient rights.

Proponents of mandatory immunization policies, she said, have cited a 1905 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in which a man argued that he should be required to take a smallpox vaccine because its science was unsound and it might cause him harm. Mariner said it is important to remember he was never coerced into taking the vaccine; instead, the man only paid a fine for refusing.

Most of Mariner’s lecture focused on the history of public health and the legal precedent for mandatory public health procedures such as immunizations.

“Patients’ rights need to retain value to limit overreaching government policies, and the byproduct could be people cooperating rather than resisting,” she said.

The lecture was followed by comments from Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and University bioethics professor Deb DeBruin.

DeBruin said she has more questions than answers when it comes to balancing public health and individual rights in dealing with bioterrorism.

She said policy-makers must place bioterrorism threats in perspective and make sure too many resources are not diverted from other causes.

Dan Haugen covers University research and welcomes comments at [email protected]