Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
January 12, 2004
Make fidelity a lifestyle choice
Canada's new public health minister, Carolyn Bennett, says the government has the responsibility to warn people about the consequences of bad lifestyle choices.
The first goal of any health policy should be "to keep as many Canadians as healthy for as long as possible," Bennett said in an interview with CanWest News Service.
This is a laudable goal, even if many believe their "lifestyle choices" are their own business and the government should butt out. People's so-called personal decisions have consequences for the public purse as well as for their own well-being. More importantly, the physical health of people is one aspect of the common good. It is better to have a nation of healthy people than a nation of sick people.
To be sure, this point can be driven to ridiculous or totalitarian extremes. But surely it is not an infringement on personal liberty to urge people to quit smoking, get some exercise, eat a moderate, balanced diet, drive safely and obey other common sense rules for preventing disease and injury.
However, two further points need to be made in developing a realistic public health policy.
The first is that people should be encouraged to restrict sexual intercourse to the bounds of one man and one woman in marriage. This is not just a matter of traditional morality; it makes sense from a public health standpoint. While public health proponents will take a stand on seat belt use, eating saturated fats and a myriad of other issues, when it comes to extra-marital sex, too many accept the nostrum that it is "merely" a matter of personal choice.
Yet, we know that extra-marital sex can lead to sexually transmitted diseases, infertility and even death. It can also lead to the breakdown of marriages and the consequent raising of children in single-parent families - itself a factor related to poorer educational performance, criminal behaviour and poverty in the next generation.
Marital breakdown can also lead to health problems and a shortened lifespan for the divorced couples.
Pre-marital sex can lead to pregnancy - an outcome that so often leads to either abortion or children being raised in single-parent homes.
Despite the negative consequences that extra-marital sex has for individuals and society as a whole, too often the public health response is "If you are going to have sex outside marriage, protect yourself." We can have expensive public education campaigns telling people to say "no" to drugs and to exercise regularly, but no one will say "boo" about the beneficial health effects of abstaining from sex outside of marriage.
The second point is that public health is not solely a matter of personal behaviour. Governments are challenging huge industries built on tobacco or fast food, but they are more reluctant to identify pollution-creating industries, ranging from the internal combustion engine to pulp and paper as threats to public health.
In Alberta, government cutbacks of the mid-1990s led to the gutting of the provincial environment department at the same time hospitals were being closed. Most often, the health effects of various forms of environmental destruction do not show themselves for some time and are not directly traceable to degradation of the natural environment.
That, however, does not mean such health effects are not real and that industry should not be seen as a player in undermining or creating public health.
Bennett has a laudable goal in trying to keep as many Canadians healthy for as long as possible. But let's be consistent in trying to achieve that goal. Success will only be achieved to the extent that those in public authority overcome long-established blind spots.
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