Public policies, law and bioethics: a framework for producing public health policy across the European Union

Darren Shickle, Erica Richardson, Fiona Day, Christian Munthe, Albert Jovell, Heta Gylling, Rein Vos, Tuija Takala, Carlo Petrini, G Torlone, Nicola Elizabeth Moran, Ingrid Holme, Karen El-Arifi, Adrienne Hunt, Marcus Griffin, Alex Coupland, L Stroud

Research output: Book/ReportBook


Unlike the duties of clinicians to patients, professional standards for ethical practice are not well defined in public health. This is mainly due to public health practice having to reconcile tensions between public and private interest(s). This involves at times being paternalistic, while recognising the importance of privacy and autonomy, and at the same time balancing the interests of some against those of others. The Public Health specialist operates at the macro level, frequently having to infer the wishes and needs of individuals that make up a population and may have to make decisions where the interests of people conflict. This is problematic when devising policy for small populations; however, it becomes even more difficult when there is responsibility for many communities or nation states. Under the Treaty on European Union, the European Commission was given a competence in public health. Different cultures will give different moral weight to protecting individual interests versus action for collective benefit. However, even subtle differences in moral preferences may cause problems in deriving public health policy within the European Union. Understanding the extent to which different communities perceive issues such as social cohesion by facilitating cultural dialogues will be vital if European institutions are to work towards new forms of citizenship.

The aim of EuroPHEN was to derive a framework for producing common approaches to public health policy across Europe. Little work has been done on integrating ethical analysis with empirical research, especially on trade-offs between private and public interests. The disciplines of philosophy and public policy have been weakly connected. Much of the thinking on public health ethics has hitherto been conducted in the United States of America, and an ethical framework for public health within Europe would need to reflect the greater respect for values such as solidarity and integrity which are more highly valued in Europe. Towards this aim EuroPHEN compared the organisation of public health structures and public policy responses to selected public health problems in Member States to examine how public policy in different countries weighs competing claims of private and public interest. Ethical analysis was performed of tensions between the private and public interest in the context of various ethical theories, principles and traditions. During autumn 2003, 96 focus groups were held across 16 European Union Member States exploring public attitudes and values to public versus private interests. The groups were constructed to allow examination of differences in attitudes between countries and demographic groups (age, gender, smoking status, educational level and parental and marital status). Focus group participants discussed issues such as attitudes to community; funding of public services; rights and responsibilities of citizens; rules and regulations; compulsory car seat belts; policies to reduce tobacco consumption; Not-In-My-Back-Yard arguments; banning of smacking of children; legalising cannabis and parental choice with regards to immunisation. This project proposes a preliminary framework and stresses that a European policy of Public Health will have to adopt a complex, pluralistic and dynamic goal structure, capable of accommodating variations in what specific goals should be prioritised in the specific socio-economic settings of individual countries.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherEuroPHEN: European Public Health Ethics Network
Commissioning bodyEuropean Commission DGV
Number of pages304
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2006


  • Ethics
  • Public opinion
  • Public Health
  • European Union (EU)

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