The precautionary principle and the management of risks to public health

Image of graffiti of the word 'risk'

Event details


Date & time

Tuesday 05 May 2015


Seminar Room 3, Hedley Bull Centre (130), corner of Garran Road and Liversidge Street, ANU
ANU Canberra


Assoc. Prof. Anne-Maree Farrell, Monash University


Emma Larking
+61 (0)2 6125 1513

The interpretation and application of the precautionary principle in managing risk has been the subject of enduring academic, scientific and political controversy. This paper examines the use of the principle as a mechanism for managing risks to public health.

This will be done through an examination of a case study involving its use in the field of blood safety, with a specific focus on the men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM) blood donor deferral policy in the post HIV blood contamination era.

Drawing on findings from this case study, it is suggested that when the politicisation of risk occurs, the use of the precautionary principle becomes messy and unpredictable in policy-making and regulatory design.

Concerns about reputational risk on the part of regulators can serve to undermine scientific assessment of risk. It can also lead to over-reliance on the use of technology as a magic bullet underpinning a precautionary approach, in the absence of ongoing cost-benefit analysis. 

Against this background, the paper considers the broader implications of these findings for how we should conceptualise the relationship between risk, precaution and regulation in the public health context.

Assoc. Professor Anne-Maree Farrell is an ARC Future Fellow in the Faculty of Law at Monash University. Before entering academia, she worked as a litigation lawyer in private practice for over ten years.

Prior to taking up her current academic position, she was based at the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy at the University of Manchester, which is home to one of the largest research groups in health law and bioethics in Europe.

Her research expertise lies generally in health law, regulation and policy. She has specific interests in law and the human body, health technologies and a growing interest in public health governance.

She has published widely in a range of internationally recognised journals and edited collections. Her books include European Law and New Health Technologies (OUP 2013), with co-editors M. Flear, TK Hervey and T Murphy; The Politics of Blood: Ethics Innovation and the Regulation of Risk (CUP 2012) and Organ Shortage: Ethics Law and Pragmatism (CUP 2011), with co-editors D Price and M. Quigley.

Assoc. Professor Farrell’s Fellowship project is entitled Regulating Human Body Parts: Principles Institutions and Politics and runs from 2014-2017. The Project will investigate new regulatory models for the donation and supply of human tissue and related technologies.

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