What do we need to know?

Helen Branswell notes that the public doesn’t know the precise details of the cancer that killed Jack Layton and considers whether Canadians need more disclosure from political leaders.

Dr. Lawrence Altman has explored the health of U.S. political candidates for decades as the medical reporter for the New York Times. He says it’s surprising that at this point in history a political leader could die of an undisclosed illness — and says it is unlikely American media outlets would have let the issue go easily. “I think the Times has taken the position that this is information the public is entitled to know,” Altman says of the general issue of leading politicians’ health. Altman is researching a book he hopes to write about political leaders and their health status disclosure.

“My position is that there should be transparency,” adds Altman, who while still writing for the Times is also a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “There’s no reason any illness should keep somebody from running for office. It’s up to the public to decide whether that illness interferes with the ability to carry out the functions of office or whether that person should be elected. But that’s up to the electorate. The issue to me is that the electorate should be fully informed.”

Andre Picard argued that greater disclosure was required after Mr. Layton announced he was stepping away last July. (Chris Selley briefly questioned Picard’s reasoning.)

A few notes on the timeline in Mr. Layton’s case. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February 2010. He underwent hip surgery to repair a small fracture on March 4, 2011. Three weeks later, in the lead-up to the 2011 election, he pronounced himself fit for a campaign and said his PSA level was “virtually at an undetectable level” (see also this transcript of John Geddes’ conversation with him). He proceeded with that campaign and seemed to improve as it went on. In late June 2011, he began to feel sore and stiff (see this story for details). On July 20, 2011, he was diagnosed with a new form of cancer. On July 25, 2011, he announced he was stepping aside. On the morning of August 22, 2011, he passed away.

There’s an argument to be made that all party leaders facing an election should, like American presidential candidates, be expected to release some amount of medical information. (American presidential candidates, mind you, are also expected to disclose information about their tax returns.) Here is what Lawrence Altman wrote about candidate disclosures in 2008. I’m not sure I agree that the public needs to know the details of a party leader’s health, but any such practice would obviously have to be applied to all leaders equally.

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