“Way Station Selves” Embedded in Biological Networks

766 total words    

3 minutes of reading

Margaret P. Battin, Leslie P. Francis, J.A. Jacobson and Charles B. Smith. The Patient as Victim and Vector: Ethics and Infectious Disease. Oxford University Press, 2009, 576 pages. $31.95.

It is not surprising that when contemporary bioethics began to take form in the 1960s and 1970s questions posed by infectious disease were all but absent. This lacuna reflected the dominant thinking in medicine and even in public health. What little there was of even the first glimpses of an ethics of public health focused on the issues posed by concerns about chronic disease and “life style.”

And then there was AIDS. Bioethicists drawn to this new challenge at a time when its global dimensions were not even a specter on the horizon brought with them the conceptual apparatus that had served them well in considering issues of research and the clinical encounter. While the autonomy-focused bioethical frame was very useful at a moment when concerns about coercion, stigma, and privacy and confidentiality were central, it became increasingly obvious, at least to some, that something more robust would be essential if an ethics of epidemic disease were to provide for a meaningful encounter with the real world of public health. That initial insight became all the more obvious in the early 1990s with the resurgence of concern about tuberculosis.

What began to emerge was a number forays into the ethics of infectious disease as part of the broader project of efforts to articulate an ethics of public health. But nothing until now approached the scope and depth of The Patient as Victim and Vector by Margaret Battin, Leslie Frances, Jay Jacobson, and Charles Smith. Accessibly, sometimes elegantly, written, cogent, and provocative, this new book, the collective effort of philosophers and physicians, well serves as both a statement to the field of bioethics and as a valuable text for students in medicine, public health, and bioethics.

Battin and her colleagues begin with an insight that is both biological and socio-cultural. “Human beings all live together with each other in a web of potential and actual disease. . . . Even when they are not currently overtly ill and not aware of the possibly of transmission . . . no matter how people try, they cannot avoid the fact not just that they are at risk of infection from others but that they in turn pose risks to others and thus perhaps to others far distant from themselves” (p. 80). We are thus “way-station selves” embedded in biological networks that have ineluctable ethical consequences. From this starting point it is not a long way to the framework that informs The Patient as Victim and Vector: “ethical problems in infectious disease should be analyzed, and clinical practice and research agendas and public policies developed that always take into account the possibility that a person with communicable infectious disease is both victim and victor” (p. 7). More, this perspective serves as a foundation for their claim that much of bioethics and American ideology are too limited, cabined in a way that limits moral theory and its application to the world of “flesh and blood human beings.”

With care and unusual modesty Margaret Battin and her colleagues turn to a range of topics central to the practice of public health, such as surveillance, required testing, mandated immunization, and the imposition of constraints in light of infectious disease. SARS, tuberculosis, and the threat of pandemic flu receive sustained attention. In speaking of the burdens borne by those who may even be the legitimate subject of imposed constraint they display both care and humanity: “there will remain the recognition that victims have had important moral interests overridden despite the justifiability of the choices made.”

At the end of the day this is a very fine volume. Perhaps most important it demonstrates again and again that formulaic responses to the threat of infectious disease are inadequate to the challenges they pose. It is a remarkable, and I think lamentable, fact that in recent years the still-nascent discussion of the public health in general, and of epidemic disease more specifically, has all but been supplanted by the language of human rights. Human rights efforts can and have had important, morally significant outcomes, especially in the face of outrageous assault on human dignity. But too frequently the terms of human rights have been too blunt an instrument for engaging the extraordinarily difficult challenges of infectious disease. That, Battin and her colleagues have made abundantly clear. To watch the authors probe and struggle with the moral dilemmas we all face is more than worth the price of admission.

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  • Ronald Bayer

    Ronald Bayer, Ph.D., is Professor at the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.

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