Privacy versus public duty. Should public officials be required to disclose their medical conditions?
Sunday, June 24, 2007
by John Patterson
SPRINGFIELD — If you’re asking voters to elect you, do they deserve to know you’ve got cancer or some
other potentially life-threatening disease?
The question sparked hot debate across the Chicago area last week, in the wake of news that Cook County
Board President Todd Stroger had been diagnosed with prostate cancer prior to his election in November,
though he did not make that public until now.
It’s a touchy subject in a modern era of both heightened medical privacy and yet often increasing
attention to personal details of public officials.
Add in the fact that people like Stroger oversee billions of taxpayer dollars and the question of
whether health or other personal issues allow them to effectively do their jobs suddenly no longer
looks like a tawdry invasion of privacy.
“I do think there’s a difference between someone in public life and someone in private life. I don’t
think anyone in private life has any responsibility to disclose their problems to anyone else. But I
think when you’re in public life people do have some right to know what is going on in the lives of
public officials, whether they can serve, discharge their responsibilities,” said former Illinois
Attorney General Jim Ryan, whose three bouts with cancer during his tenure in public office played out
in headlines and news reports.
Cook County Board President Todd Stroger did not disclose he had cancer when he ran for election,
Stroger is the latest in a long line of public officials at all levels of Illinois government who’ve
been stricken with health ailments. In most cases, the official went public early with the diagnosis
“If you’re going to run for public office you give up a lot of those rights. It’s not just medical.
It’s, did you balance your checkbook, are you and your wife getting along?” said former Gov. Jim Edgar,
whose heart conditions and surgery often played out on newspaper front pages. “Nobody forces anybody to
run for office.”
Stroger’s prostate cancer was made public last week only after it had been leaked to the media,
followed by confirmation from his staff. Stroger was diagnosed nearly 10 months ago and had surgery
last week to remove his prostate. Doctors expect the 44-year-old to make a full recovery, Stroger’s
But the after-the-fact acknowledgment comes on the heels of the Stroger family being criticized for not
telling the public about the extent of Stroger’s father’s impairment following a stroke last year.
Then-county board President John Stroger had a stroke shortly before the March 2006 primary. His doctor
said he could suffer effects ranging from a slight numbness on one side to complete disability, but it
was too early to tell. Stroger went on to win the primary.
His family then released little about his condition, other than to promise John Stroger would be back.
He then resigned in early July, after the deadline for independent candidates to file for the November
ballot had passed. Democratic Party leaders installed Todd Stroger on the November ballot, all of which
prompted cries of political nepotism.
As for Todd Stroger’s cancer, his camp has remained steadfast in insisting that his health is his own
Yet county Commissioner Mike Quigley, a sometimes friend/sometimes foe of Todd Stroger, said he should
have made his illness known because the public has a right to know and because it is the smart thing to
Not disclosing it “clearly reminds people of how his father’s situation was handled and how that …
helped him become the president of the county board,” Quigley said.
Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, agreed the public
has a right to know and public officials have a responsibility to quickly divulge anything that might
impair their ability to do their jobs. When you’re talking about candidates, the issue takes on even
“You don’t want to frustrate the ability of the voters to make a choice,” Kahn said.
“I think it’s in some sense a public relations issue then. It’s likely to come out, isn’t it better to
inoculate yourself and say I want to take control of the information?”
How will it play?
While Edgar was open about his heart condition, he admitted there were long talks about when and how to
go public and he’d moved to different hospitals in an attempt to control when word got out.
In 1992, Edgar underwent a routine stress test at a Springfield hospital and doctors immediately
recognized problems and admitted him, only to have it hit Springfield airwaves within minutes.
So, in 1994 and facing open-heart surgery, Edgar opted to have the procedure done in Downers Grove.
“I was really concerned. In ’94, I was in the midst of a re-election campaign and how’s it going to
play, you having open-heart surgery. Is it going to play, you’ve got it taken care of, or this guy’s an
invalid and you can’t vote for him?”
Edgar rolled to an easy 1994 re-election over Democrat Dawn Clark Netsch and, in hindsight, says his
health problems likely helped.
“I’m sure Netsch will tell you it helped me, because it did kind of freeze her campaign. And I don’t
think anybody didn’t vote for me because they thought I wasn’t up to the job,” Edgar said. “Now within
a month I was back on the trail and I looked … I was a little thin … but other than that I looked
healthy. That probably helped me. If I’d been 300 pounds, overweight and pale and all that and I walked
with a limp they might have said, ‘This guy’s near death and we don’t think we ought to vote for
Jim Ryan similarly said the announcement of his cancer was greeted by overwhelming public support.
“One of the biggest support systems I had when I was sick were just ordinary people calling me, writing
me,” Ryan said. “And even to this day it happens.”