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Public Health Ethics

As the nation’s leading public health agency, CDC primarily takes a population-based approach to public health, targeting communities or populations in its activities. The problems that CDC addresses are often complex, involving multiple risk factors, multiple stakeholders, and many different perspectives on how to prevent or ameliorate health concerns and promote well-being. CDC staff use a variety of scientific tools in their work -- epidemiology, behavioral and social science, communication science, laboratory science, and many others. Another critical tool for public health decision making and action is public health ethics. Public health ethics brings considerations, such as principles and values, to discussions of public health policies and actions.

CDC and Public Health Ethics

What is Public Health Ethics?
Public health ethics can be subdivided into a field of study and a field of practice. As a field of study, public health ethics seeks to understand and clarify principles and values which guide public health actions. Principles and values provide a framework for decision making and a means of justifying decisions. Because public health actions are often undertaken by governments and are directed at the population level, the principles and values which guide public health can differ from those which guide actions in biology and clinical medicine (bioethics and medical ethics) which are more patient or individual-centered.

As a field of practice, public health ethics is the application of relevant principles and values to public health decision making. In applying an ethics framework, public health ethics inquiry carries out three core functions, namely 1) identifying and clarifying the ethical dilemma posed, 2) analyzing it in terms of alternative courses of action and their consequences, and 3) resolving the dilemma by deciding which course of action best  incorporates and balances the guiding principles and values.

What are the goals and structure for Public Health Ethics at CDC?
The goal of CDC’s public health ethics activities is to integrate the tools of ethical analysis into day-to-day operations across CDC. Two public health ethics committees provide leadership for this activity at CDC -- the CDC Public Health Ethics Committee (PHEC) and the Ethics Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee to the Director, CDC.

PHEC is responsible for building CDC’s public health ethics infrastructure, including fostering an environment and culture that supports and develops ethical practices, raising staff awareness of public health ethics, and providing tools for analyzing ethical issues. PHEC is also responsible for providing guidance for initiating and implementing public health ethics consultations. PHEC members serve as public health ethics leaders responsible for initiating public public health ethics education and managing public health ethics issues within their respective Centers and Offices.

The external Ethics Subcommittee provides consultation and guidance to CDC on a broad range of public health ethics topics and issues; education and training; and advice on infrastructure and capacity building within the agency.

For More on Public Health Ethics at CDC…

Contact Dr. Drue Barrett, Public Health Ethics Coordinator in the CDC Office of the Chief Science Officer at, 404-639-4690.


Public health ethics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: ensuring health, improving trust. The what, why, and how of public health ethics at CDC.

The Principles of the Ethical Practice of Public Health
Public Health Leadership Society

Ethics and Public Health: Model Curriculum
Association of Schools of Public Health

Public Health Code of Ethics
American Public Health Association


Page last reviewed: June 11, 2008
Page last modified: July 15, 2008
Content source: Office of the Chief Science Officer (OCSO)