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Why Presidential Candidates Shouldn't Have to Release Their Health Records

Clinton and Trump have not released much information about their health since issuing short doctors' statements last year. This makes some people very mad!
August 25, 2016, 2:50pm
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

When it comes to the 2016 presidential election, voters have a lot of concerns. They want a leader who will keep the country safe and economically afloat. They demand a president who shares their social values. And they want that person to not be clinically insane or on the verge of death. This last demand—that the president shouldn't have a debilitating problem that prevents them from doing the job—seems like a given, and yet the debate over who is literally fit to govern has somehow become a point of contention on both the right and left.

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Unless you've been avoiding the news entirely, you're probably aware that our candidates' health is now a major issue. Maybe you've heard that Hillary Clinton is hiding some sort of catastrophic illness, that she has epileptic seizures or possibly a brain tumor. That she can no longer walk up stairs. That she went on Jimmy Kimmel's show to prove she's strong enough to open a jar of pickles, but that this display of might have been staged, too. Or perhaps you've read that Donald Trump is suffering from a myriad of psychiatric disorders, and that therapists are diagnosing "Trumpism" as if were a disease, saying that it "is inconsistent with emotionally healthy living."

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Most of the speculation about Clinton and Trump suffering from health problems is coming from partisan outlets, and some of it seems only slightly less conspiratorial than theories about Freemasons and reptilians. That said, even The New York Times has raised questions about our candidates' health. Clinton and Trump, at ages 68 and 70, respectively, have not released much information about their well-being since issuing short doctors' statements last year. The paper of record notes that this is a break from recent tradition, as candidates have released extensive health information since the 1980s.

Older candidates like Reagan and McCain have tended to release even more info; in 2008, for example, McCain released 1100 pages of medical records. The Times quotes former McCain advisor Steve Schmidt, who says, "When you have candidates at their ages, the disclosure should be on the burdensome side." This is in keeping with what Ben Carson—who is, despite everything, a medical expert—told MSNBC: "I think that somebody who is running for president of the United States, particularly if they're elderly—and that would include both major candidates—should disclose their medical history."

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According to a Rasmussen poll, 59 percent of voters—62 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans—believe that Clinton and Trump should release their most recent medical records. It's understandable that voters want to know if a candidate is especially likely to die in office. And while it's easy to say that no reasonable person would run for president (a four-year position, mind you) with an undisclosed terminal illness, at this point we can't really expect our politicians to be reasonable.

While it's easy to say that no reasonable person would run for president with an undisclosed terminal illness, at this point we can't really expect our politicians to be reasonable.

Claims that Trump and Clinton are sick may seem loony, but there is a long history of health coverups. As the Times story points out, "Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke in 1919 that largely incapacitated him, a condition that he and his advisers hid for a time. Franklin D. Roosevelt was rarely photographed in his wheelchair, and John F. Kennedy's chronic back pain and regimen of medications were concealed." There's even reasonable evidence that Ronald Reagan suffered from Alzheimer's in fits throughout his second term in office.

Still, is releasing full medical records the solution to this obfuscation? I asked Dr. Paul Appelbaum, the director of the division of Law, Ethics & Psychiatry at Columbia University, for his opinion on the topic. He told me that requiring full health disclosures might actually lead candidates "to forgo needed treatment or to withhold information from caregivers so as not to create a paper trail documenting a general health or mental health condition." Instead, he says our political system should follow the approach of professional licensure boards: "Instead of asking [candidates] to list all health conditions and provide releases for all records (especially if mental health is involved)," we should "ask specifically whether the [candidate] has recently experienced or now has a condition that impairs their ability to function" as president. Otherwise we may end up with a "a system that—in the name of transparency—encourages them to hide conditions that would benefit from medical attention."

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This seems like the right balance. After all, we may deserve to know if a candidate has dementia, but we don't need to know if they're also on Valtrex. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Beyond this, forcing people to release records may violate confidentiality laws designed to protect those with AIDS and other diseases. It's hard to believe, but presidential candidates are still technically people, and as such deserve some of the same privacy protections as the rest of us. This includes not having to disclose your full medical history to your future employer, let alone the entire country.

For now, at least, we're stuck with an imperfect system of voluntary disclosures. Both candidates seem to want to withhold as much information as possible. This could be for any number of reasons. Maybe it's something nefarious, like syphilitic madness or a secret Oxy habit, but more likely it's just that the candidates don't want to disclose how their bodies are in the midst of the slow breakdown that comes with living for 70 years. According to the Washington Post, "Trump's spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said Wednesday that Trump has 'no problem' releasing a full medical history, as long as Clinton does the same." Which means that we might not getting any more information at all.