Can You Be Tested and Quarantined Without Your Consent?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on January 04, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

After the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and Zika virus in 2015, the fear that a deadly, communicable disease will find its way from foreign countries into America is very real. In response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) proposed a new rule giving it more authority to detain, test, and quarantine travelers entering or moving through the United States.

This might seem like a good idea on its face -- after all, we don't want people dying from preventable diseases. But many are worried about the potential impact that forced detention and medical testing could have on civil liberties and informed consent.

Illegal Seizure?

Most of what the CDC is asking for isn't new. As the Atlantic's Ed Yong points out, "It is already authorized to detain people suspected of carrying diseases like plague, Ebola, and (somewhat improbably) smallpox." But the proposed rule change would expand the CDC's detention powers to any "quarantinable communicable disease," and uses wider and more flexible range of symptoms used to identify and quarantine "ill" travelers.

The rule would also grant the CDC detention, testing, and quarantine authority during "public-health emergencies." These are broadly defined (any "communicable disease event") and subject to the Director of the CDC's judgment of an outbreak likely to spread or "highly likely to cause death or serious illness if not properly controlled." If an emergency is declared, according to Yong, "the CDC could screen people at airports and other transport hubs, apprehend those they suspect of being ill for three days, and potentially quarantine or isolate them pending a medical review."

For critics, it's not hard to see how this broad detention power could be misused to confine, harass, or intimidate travelers from particular countries, or even citizens travelling within the United States.

One of the central principles of medical ethics is that a patient has given his or her informed consent to any treatment. Doctors and others medical professionals who fail to obtain informed consent before treatment, or who provide treatment counter to what the patient has consented to can be liable for medical malpractice.

The CDC's new rule would give it the authority to conduct medical tests and treatments, all without consent. As the rules states, "the individual's consent shall not be considered as a prerequisite to the exercise of any authority," leaving the door open for forced vaccinations or other treatments.

While the rule has yet to go into effect, the period for comments on the proposal has ended, and many expect it may be enacted even before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office.

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