This article was originally posted at RealClearScience.
In late January, I wrote a controversial op-ed for USA Today on how jail should be an option for parents who endanger their children and society at large by refusing vaccines. I received plenty of hate mail for that — mostly in the form of four-letter words, Nazi comparisons, and vague death threats. However, before you turn your keyboard into an instrument of revenge, I would like to further elaborate on what I feel is a very, very important issue — perhaps the most important issue we have ever discussed at RealClearScience.
Though many Americans (myself included) understandably flinch at the idea of the government forcing people to do or not to do things, there are times when government mandates are entirely appropriate. You are not allowed to drink and drive; if you do, you could go to jail. You cannot tamper with a fire extinguisher at a gas station; if you do, you could go to jail. You cannot run around naked at a sporting event; if you do, you could go to jail.
These laws, with the specific threat of jail, are in place to highlight the danger that such irresponsible behavior poses to society. Drinking and driving kills people. Tampering with fire extinguishers puts people in danger if there is a fire. Running around naked — well, let’s just say society doesn’t want that, either.
The same reasoning also applies to vaccines. A parent who chooses not to vaccinate is threatening the life and health of his child, as well as every person with whom his child comes into contact. We have already decided as a society that we will not allow parents to endanger their children, even if their actions are done with good intentions. Last year, faith-healing parents in Pennsylvania and Oregon were sentenced to prison after their children died from treatable illnesses. The former, who lost two children to pneumonia, were convicted of third-degree murder, and the latter, who lost their child to diabetes, were convicted of manslaughter.
Furthermore, there is precedent for threatening parents who refuse to vaccinate their children with jail. In 2007, a Maryland judge threatened parents with jail if they failed to provide proof of vaccination for their schoolchildren. Parents in France, Belgium, and Nigeria all could face jail time if they refuse to vaccinate their kids. Why? Because these societies have decided that public health trumps individual rights.
Having said all that, there are still two more points worth making:
First, regardless of your belief about vaccine mandates, ultimately we all want the same thing: A safe and healthy world, particularly for our children. Though we may not agree on policy, we (hopefully) agree on the desired outcome.
Second, I am rarely ever married to any particular policy. I could be convinced that severe fines are more appropriate than jail. Still, it would seem that jail ought to be an option on the table for the most extreme cases, such as the entirely preventable measles outbreak that started at Disneyland. Regardless of what specific policy our country pursues, the bigger takeaway from my argument is that the status quo simply cannot be allowed to continue. We must tighten vaccine exemption laws.
Thankfully, that is beginning to happen. California is seeking to eliminate all exemptions except for medical ones. Philosophical objections would no longer be allowed. That is a very good step. Mississippi, which has a similar law, has a 99.7% MMR and DTaP vaccination rate for kindergarteners. (See CDC data here.) If the entire world had such a vaccination rate, measles — like smallpox — would be relegated to the dustbin of history.
Then, we wouldn’t need so many vaccines.