In the wake of Sept.11 and the anthrax mailings, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that states adopt a model law creating sweeping new powers to deal with public-health emergencies. State officials could order citizens to be vaccinated, quarantine those suspected of having a contagious disease, take over hospitals and physicians' offices and seize and destroy property deemed a threat to public health. Since January at least 30 states have considered adopting all or part of the model law, but they've run headfirst into a motley coalition of civil liberties groups, religious conservatives, free-marketeers and gay-rights activists. As a result, many states have begun to decide they don't want that much power after all. So far only Utah has passed a version of the law, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council, and in the past month several other states have stripped away all but the most essential provisions.
The backlash started when gun advocates realized that the model law gave health officials the power to restrict the sale of firearms in an emergency; the CDC quickly dropped the word firearms from its list of materials the government could control. Then religious and pro-family groups rebelled against forced treatment and vaccination; so several states considering the legislation took out provisions making refusal to be vaccinated a misdemeanor. Gay activists feared that the bill might permit states to quarantine people who have HIV or AIDS. The CDC responded by narrowing its definition of a public-health emergency. But the most crucial aspect of the bill--the ability to quarantine citizens who may pose a health threat to others--is the one that has become the most contentious, pitting public-health officials in a state-by-state battle with civil libertarians. Existing law typically forces state authorities to get a court order before putting someone in quarantine. The CDC's model law gives health officials the power to isolate a citizen immediately so long as they file for a court order within 10 days. Several states considering the bill have reduced the waiting time to 72 hours, but that's still too long for some critics. Says Twila Brase, president of the Citizens' Council on Health Care: "You'll inevitably sweep up healthy people. And what happens when they refuse to be held? You're going to have Kent State all over again." The alternative, though, may be just as grim. In Maine, warns deputy attorney general Linda Pistner, there's nothing to stop someone with smallpox from walking out of the hospital. "Without this tool," she asks, "how else can we minimize the loss of life?"
--By Andrew Goldstein