NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Civil Liberties Vs. Bioterrorism Preparations

May 17, 2002

In the midst of the anthrax incidents of last fall, the Model Emergency Health Powers Act was drafted and rushed to state governments. It was to act as a template for their governors and public health departments in strengthening quarantine powers to deal with a new, larger and more dangerous bioterror attack.

Although 11 states have passed some version of the act, in many others the laws will be delayed or diluted -- if passed at all. Civil libertarians, among others, fear that the provisions will allow state and local officials to trample on individual rights.

The arguments swirling in California are illustrative of the nationwide debate.

  • The American Civil Liberties Union of California argued the model law has too broad a definition of a bioterror emergency, and too narrow a set of safeguards for due process, medical privacy and religious objections to procedures such as cremation.
  • The American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-market advocacy group, contends the act puts a stranglehold on civil liberties, constitutes an unwarranted expansion of state powers, and would lead to declarations of quarantine on the vague definition of a biological threat.
  • The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a conservative medical group, objects to the law's provisions for compulsory shots in an emergency.
  • The Capitol Resource Institute, a family-advocacy group, rejects the provision for temporary isolation of the sick, even to limit the spread of the disease.

In a democracy, a period of healthy public debate is required before a reasonable political consensus can be reached. Problem is, the nation remains vulnerable to bioterror and preparations by state public health must be put on hold until the rules are established and the powers designated.

Source: Marilyn Chase, "Civil-Liberties Issues Check Plans to Counter Bioterrorism," Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2002.


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