USA Today published a column recently that suggested all “anti-vaxx” parents should be put in prison. Of course Slate agrees. Forbes contested that parents who don’t vaccinate should be sued. A recent poll found that a majority of Americans believe vaccines should be forced, and a slightly smaller majority think unvaccinated kids should be banned from schools. The TV doctor on Fox News recently called on President Barack Obama to pass federal regulations mandating vaccines for all children.
In short, as we have seen time and time again, despite Ben Franklin’s urges to the contrary, many people will choose safety over liberty, no matter how slight the risk and how serious the infringement. But while they worry about a potential public health emergency, I worry that the Salem witch trial mentality has created a constitutional emergency.
Some will take issue with me calling it a “slight risk,” but it is slight. Even in Disneyland, ground zero of this measles outbreak, 95 have been infected out of the 15 million who’ve attended the park in the last year. And for those who contract the illness, it will almost assuredly not be fatal (yes, I know it can be, but I said almost because the fatality rate is so low). The risk is slight by every definition.
That’s one reason why you can’t compare unvaccinated kids with, say, a drunk driver — because the chances of killing someone while driving intoxicated are much, much, much, much greater than the chances of opting out of vaccine, becoming infected with a dangerous illness, then spreading that illness to another person who then dies.
There is another reason it doesn't make sense to compare unvaccinated kids with drunk drivers: Drunk drivers aren't generally driving drunk because they believe that it is less risky than not doing so. Parents who choose not to vaccinate do so because they have weighed the risks, given the available information (no easy task given the corruption and outright lies prevalent in the scientific and regulatory community on this issue), and decided that they prefer to take on the risks of not vaccinating over the risks of vaccinating. And yes, there are risks to vaccinating - all that is in contention is the degree of those risks.
But of course the real issue has less to do with the debate over the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and more to do with the fundamental right to do with one's own body what one chooses (or, in the case of children, the parents' right to choose.) So much of the rage directed at "anti-vaxxers" is because they threaten herd immunity. But those resorting to this argument presume that herd immunity is something that we each have a right to, that we have a right to demand that others provide for us - at their own risk and expense. But it is not.
It is one thing to demand that those infected with a deadly disease not knowingly expose others. It is quite another to insist that everyone around you take every imaginable precaution - no matter the cost to them - against getting any remotely dangerous ailment. Quite simply: You do not have the right to impose risks upon me or my children so that you may reap the benefits of herd immunity.
But there’s another problem.
Even pro-vaccine-compulsion people (as opposed to just pro-vaccine people, like myself) admit that there are at least some circumstances where not getting vaccinated would be the right course of action. Specifically, for a child who has cancer or is immunodeficient. This further separates non-vaccination from other “risky” behaviors, in that those other behaviors are intrinsically wrong and never OK, whereas even the most ardent folks in the pro-vaccine-compulsion camp (PVC) allow for exceptions. Quite magnanimous of them, isn’t it?
These exceptions bring up some questions.
First of all: if vaccines are forced or unvaccinated kids are treated like lepers, segregated in colonies and prohibited from schools and public facilities, would that apply to a child who has leukemia or who’s in some other vaccine-disqualifying situation? Taking vaccines out of it, children with compromised immune systems get sick more frequently, and because they get sick more frequently, they are a “risk” to those around them. What should the government do about them?
And who decides what counts as an exception?
It seems odd that so many critics took umbrage to my anti-vaccine-compulsion position, telling me that their child can’t get vaccinated and relies on “herd immunity” to avoid getting sick, but don’t see that they should be on my side precisely because their child can’t get vaccinated. Do they really want the State, or the schools, or the angry pitchfork mob to decide whether their son or daughter should be granted a pass from the vaccine schedule? I’m advocating for their rights to do what’s right for their child. And I’m exhibiting the humility (a rare occurrence, so enjoy it while it lasts) to acknowledge that I am not in a position to decide who should have that right and who shouldn’t.
My kids are vaccinated, but should I not have the right to decline even shots for sexually transmitted diseases? Must it be legally mandatory that we get out infants immunized for HPV and Hepatitis B? What if they ever cook up an AIDS vaccine? Should every 6-month-old in the country be dragged to the doctor to receive it, even if we can easily avoid AIDS just by declining to participate in extremely risky behavior?
What about the flu?
The flu kills far more people than the measles, and it’s very contagious. Should it be required? Should the Non-Flu-Shot Kids be kicked out of class until they get that stuff injected into their bodies? Even if it’s ineffective? Should we all be required? I’ve never had a flu shot, should I be convicted of some kind of crime? As I said, my son got the shot recently. On Wednesday he was back at the doctor with a fever and respiratory problems. We were told that these were entirely unrelated, but I think next year we will be declining the procedure. I know it doesn’t protect against every strand of the flu, but this is a medical decision and a personal judgment call, and I am repulsed at the notion that I shouldn’t have the right to make it.
Indeed, judgment is the name of the game here. Even if the risks are small and the side effects rare,vaccines still carry them. My wife and I looked at it and decided we were willing to assume those risks, but should everyone be forced into it? And what if, in the rare case, someone does have a severe reaction to a vaccine? Who pays the price? Who pays for his medical treatment? Who assumes that cost? He’s just SOL, huh?
Yes, you might say, the risk is necessary for the sake of public safety.
And to that I answer, I’d rather be assuming risks for the sake of liberty.
Of course it goes without saying that the whole issue only becomes a problem that invites appeals to violence when we live in a world that is largely characterized by "commons" rather than genuine private property rights. As others have ably pointed out, things would look very different indeed in the absence of the distortions caused by the state.