Bioethics Blogs

Responding to Ebola: Misplaced Police Powers

A number of states have recently adopted mandatory quarantine measures, including New York and New Jersey, for any individual entering the United States who had direct contact with someone infected with Ebola. This policy has most notably affected health care workers with Médecins Sans Frontières returning from West Africa. Governor Cuomo recently scaled back New York’s measures, instituting home as opposed to institutional quarantine for those who do not exhibit symptoms, even going as far as to provide compensation for lost income due to time spent in quarantine. This move, not yet matched by Governor Christie, comes on the heels of pressure from the White House and medical experts, as well as public unease following first-hand accounts of quarantine.

As these quarantine measures demonstrate, states have the difficult task of balancing the need for swift, meaningful response to public health threats with an enduring concern for maintaining the civil liberties of their citizens. States look to strike this delicate balance with one of the most versatile tools in their legislative toolbox—their so-called police powers. Made possible by the Tenth Amendment, which reserves powers not delegated to the federal government for the states, the police powers allow states to enact reasonable regulations in the name of protecting the safety, health, welfare, and morals of their citizens, even if this has the effect of constraining some degree of individual liberty or autonomy. While case law favors states’ ability to regulate broadly in this area, at least in the instance of Ebola, the mandatory quarantine arguably goes too far.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.