HEAL UoS

Criminal Law and Public Health – Working at Cross-Purposes?

In 2013, Gratuitous self-promotion, News, Public Ethics on November 18, 2013 at 8:00 am

According to recent news reports, the city of Edinburgh is getting tough on those who seek sensual pleasures outside of the confines of their own homes.  The police have asked that condoms be banned from saunas as a way of trying to prevent sexual activity on the premises, and city Councillors have been asked to stop issuing licenses for saunas and massage parlours.

Besides being a naïve and impractical way to prevent people from having sex, there has been, unsurprisingly, a strong condemnation of such a move on the grounds of its potential negative effect on public health.  The charity Scot-pep, for instance, has warned that implementing the police proposal on condoms could lead a HIV epidemic, as well as the proposal to limit establishments where sex workers can meet clients puts them at greater risk from some of the inherent hazards of plying their trade outdoors.

There has been a long history in the United Kingdom of a connection between the criminal justice system and public health.  In some cases, it has been a beneficial relationship in which everything from firearms restrictions, requirements for seat belts, motorcycle helmets and child safety seats and restrictions on intoxicating substances, provide examples where the criminal justice system has been used to mitigate or prevent behaviours that are harmful to individual and population health.  Nevertheless, not all intersections of criminal justice and public health are mutually beneficial.  What is most notable is the distinct progression that has been made from a so-called “policing model of public health”, that often focused on ideas of moral hygiene and legal moralism, which remained influential in Britain into the 19th century, towards more social models of public health that focus on health promotion, harm reduction and social justice.

The recent proposals in Edinburgh reveal a conflict that can arise when approaching a social problem through a criminal justice lens rather than one of public health.  Even with a greater focus on individual and population health that shies away from ideas of moral hygiene and legal moralism, there remain important tensions between criminal justice and public health concerns – especially in cases where it concerns sex and sexuality.  What is needed is an approach in which the criminal law – as well as other areas of law – is used as a public health tool that seeks to promote health and well-being, as opposed to being used to punish individuals’ choices we find distasteful or undesirable. 

HEAL has a strong interest in public health ethics and law.  Two of its core members (A.M. Viens and John Coggon) were editors of a volume that was published this month by Cambridge University Press entitled, Criminal Law, Philosophy and Public Health Practice.  Bringing together international experts from a variety of disciplines, including law, criminology, public health, philosophy and health policy, it explores the theoretical and practical implications of how the use of criminal law may promote or hinder public health goals.

A.M. Viens

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