Exploring the right of privacy and self-determination

It is an oft-cited position presented in this blog and website that the law based decision making system offered here provides the most effective and efficient approach to the resolution of practice dilemmas in the mental health professions. A frequent observation made here also suggests that problems that present themselves as “ethical dilemmas” often are discovered to have clear legal characteristics. Several previous blog posts have identified examples of this reality. A dilemma frequently used as a practice example in ethics textbooks concerns the right to self-determination enjoyed by clients. Consider the following ethical dilemma and consider the legal implications that exist at its heart: Ephraim Zinder is a mentally ill client of a community mental health center that is funded in part by various state and federal government offices. Ephraim suffers from schizophrenia, is presently living in a group home, and has been homeless at several earlier times in his life. He spends his days walking the streets of his town and has developed an amazing ability to find garbage dumpsters adjoining local restaurants in which discarded food can often be found. His social worker at the community mental health center has talked to him about developing safer eating habits, but Ephraim simply explains that he prefers to eat food from the dumpsters. When he is offered meals at his group home, Ephraim sometimes reports that he is “full” from the dumpster meals he has eaten. Does the social worker have any obligation or duty to intervene on Ephraim’s behalf in order to stop him from engaging in a practice which arguably could be seriously dangerous to his health? The discerning decision maker will quickly note a legal principle — the constitutional right to privacy — that plainly applies to this case. This right is described by courts as stemming from the 14th Amendment’s principle of substantive due process (please see the website’s discussion on this principle). If substantive due process is applied in the present scenario, Ephraim has a right to perform the essential tasks of his life — including eating — in a manner he sees fit, unless the social worker or the state-sponsored agency can find a compelling state interest that demands intervention. Is there one here? Ephraim’s social worker is of the opinion that Ephraim presents no risk of severe harm to himself or others, even though the ongoing eating habits he has displayed is unhealthy. Is is therefore appropriate to forcibly stop Ephraim from engaging in his eating pattern? In this dilemma, substantive due process supports the position that a person may engage in habits that seem unusual or even bizarre to the rest of the community, but which represent the preferred behavioral routine of the person. Forced government intervention in this matter, through the government social worker and agency, could well be considered to violate Ephraim’s right to personal privacy. How many of us have eating habits which might be considered unhealthy, but which we engage in routinely? Is government intervention warranted here? The majority of us would probably assert that it is not. As always, your comments are welcomed!

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