Drop the Kleenex and Put Your Hands Up

February 09, 2017

by Sean Philpott-Jones, Chair, Bioethics Program of Clarkson University & Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Drop the Kleenex and Put Your Hands Up

For the past week, mainstream, alternative, and social media outlets here in the United States and abroad have been consumed with discussion and debate about the legality and morality of President Trump’s recent travel ban. However, the so-called Muslim travel ban is not the only set of potentially controversial restrictions put into place recently.

Unbeknownst to most, the federal government is also planning to expand greatly the power of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to detain people who are suspected of carrying a dangerous communicable illness. Also known as quarantine – a term that comes from the Italian word for forty, in honor of the practice in Early Renaissance Venice to make trading vessels remain anchored offshore for 40 days before entering the port – the detention, isolation and even forcible treatment of those potentially exposed to a infectious disease like tuberculosis or Ebola is one of the most powerful and one of the most contentious tools in the public health arsenal.

The authority of local, state, and federal officials to do this comes from the parens patriae powers of the state. Latin for “parent of the nation, parens patriae refers to the legal doctrine that the government has a responsibility to protect those who cannot care for themselves. This includes, for example, the power of the state to intervene against an abusive or negligent parent.

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.