The field of public health is typically regarded as a positivistic pursuit and, undoubtedly, our understanding of the etiology and response to disease is heavily influenced by scientific inquiry. Public health policies, however, are shaped not only by science but also by ethical values, legal norms, and political oversight. Public Health Law and Ethics: A Reader offers a careful selection of government reports, scholarly articles, and court cases designed to illuminate the ethical, legal, and political issues in the theory and practice of public health.
Before examining law and ethics, it is helpful to explore the meaning of public health. The excerpts and commentaries in the Reader offer several alternative definitions of public health, but focus principally on the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) influential definition in The Future of Public Health: “Public health is what we, as a society, do collectively to assure the conditions for people to be healthy. ”
The IOM definition emphasizes the collective responsibility of organized society to promote the health of the population. Despite the richness of this definition, the IOM does not delineate the field's legitimate scope within a representational democracy. Should public health be confined to relatively discrete interventions to prevent immediate causes of injury and disease — for example, surveillance, health education, and infectious disease control? Alternatively, should public health be concerned with larger social and economic problems that