Public Health: fighting disease or sex with teenagers?

“Sometimes you have to forget your principles…and do the right thing”

Professor John Ashton, President of the Faculty of Public Health, Sky News, 17/11/13.

That brief sentence sums up a lot of the problems with the NHS, and one has to say, Public Health as a specialty.

Ashton – who has his own “personal website” – was talking about the problem that isn’t on everyone’s lips – the absurdly high age of consent**. He wants it lowered to 15.  This is based on “evidence” from other countries in North Europe that such a move mysteriously makes people hold back from early sexual activity.

If you had to Fisk this little nugget, you might consider the following:

1. The age of consent is not primarily one of the issues troubling healthcare. It is a legal threshold. Teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, emotional and psychological problems do not revolve around the legal threshold, they relate to the act itself.

2. There is no point in claiming to have principles if you don’t build around them. That is why they are principles.

3. Unless you’re a mad psycho-sociopath, your principles shouldn’t really conflict with “the right thing”

4. Some things are automatically good for these people, mostly varieties of sexual activity, come what may. Some things are ALWAYS bad – smoking and drinking. Possibly eating too. The only point of concern about sex is its natural consequences, hence an obsession with decoupling the act from pregnancy, STD, emotional wreckage etc

All of which, sadly, applies to Public Health as a quasi-moralistic guardian of the nation, employed and funded by the taxpayer. As a specialty it has a proud history in all sorts of ways: control of infectious disease, vaccination, investigation of patterns of illness, resource allocation and so on. Admirable stuff.

The down side is a near obsession – rampant under New Labour, all expanding budgets and increased staffing – with bossing everyone around, and promoting what you might kindly refer to as “counter-intuitive” policies, such as the one being pushed by Professor Ashton (CBE), above. Inevitably, Prof Ashton is or was a member of the Labour party and a former councillor.  One doubts that his views are free from ideology (as opposed to ‘principles’).

This power-grabbing mindset is the health version of ‘big government knows best’, and it doesn’t come cheap. Paying mothers to breastfeed and paying expectant mothers not to smoke are both examples of profligacy with the public purse that these tut-tutting doomsters like to promote.

The online magazine Spiked has been a consistent critic of this bizarre take on healthcare. In three excellent essays (1, 2, 3) it skewers the miserabilist bossy mentality beautifully:

As the definition of ‘health’ has been changed, so too has the meaning of ‘public health’. It once meant vaccinations, sanitation and education. It was ‘public’ only in the sense that it protected people from contagious diseases carried by others. Today, it means protecting people from themselves. The word ‘epidemic’ has also been divorced from its meaning – an outbreak of infectious disease – and is instead used to describe endemic behaviour such as drinking, or non-contagious diseases such as cancer, or physical conditions such as obesity which are neither diseases nor activities. This switch from literal meanings to poetic metaphors helps to maintain the conceit that governments have the same rights and responsibility to police the habits of its citizens as they do to ensure that drinking water is uncontaminated. It masks the hard reality that ‘public health’ is increasingly concerned with regulating private behaviour or private property.

Going back to Prof Ashton, clearly a doyen of this authoritarianism, he seems to  present a heady mix of bossiness, disregard for others, ignorance of criminality and classic moral relativism, all tied up in an expensive package, with perks (CBE). However, as at least one tweeter has already pointed out:

Something extremely disturbing and creepy about watching male authority figures passionately argue for a decrease in the age of consent.


Public Health, as was

**Please note that this is sarcasm


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