Over on Badastronomy Phil Plait posted up an article about an anti-vax nutjob in London. It engendered many, many comments, including ones from people who said, basically, “Hey, parents have the right not to have their children vaccinated.”
This brings up an interesting ethical question, which is: should parents be forced to vaccinate their children, regardless of their personal scientific/medical/religious viewpoints?”
Clearly the answer is a resounding yes.
There’s probably several reasons for this, but there’s two that matter to me. Public health and the rights of the child. Let me explain.
First, public health. Due to the anti-vax nonsense, we’ve had several outbreaks of measles and mumps here in the USA. Things that no one should have to suffer through. Diseases that cause blindness, sterility and even death. For vaccination to be really effective, it requires that everyone be vaccinated. Once that’s done, you can eliminate the disease. It’s what happened with smallpox, and it can happen with other diseases, too, but it requires people be vaccinated, even if they don’t want to be.
Second, the rights of the child. While I’ll generally agree that parents have the right to raise their children however they want, there are certain things they aren’t allowed to do. They aren’t allowed to put their baby at risk by driving around without it in a car seat. They can’t beat their children. They can’t refuse to feed and clothe them.
By the same token, I don’t believe parents should be allowed to put their child at risk by refusing to vaccinate them. Yes, there’s always a danger of a fatal reaction to the vaccination, but that’s less than the risk of the child dying or suffering other nasty side effects from catching a disease that can be easily prevented.
To me it comes down to parents making a choice when their child is young that could kill that child when it’s older. Many diseases that are “merely” incredibly painful, miserable and awful to a child are fatal to adults. Often the vaccines must be administered when the person in question is a child so the immunity can be built up; it won’t work if you give them to an adult. So even if you believe, “well, the child can decide for themselves once they are an adult,” that logic doesn’t work, because the vaccinations must be done while the child is still a child.
While you might accept the notion that parents have the right to put their children at risk for fatal diseases, surely you must agree they don’t have the same right to put other adults at risk. When they refuse to vaccinate, not only do they put people in the general population at risk, but they also put their children at risk during childhood and especially as adults.
I suppose some people might throw up a religious argument and say that their faith forbids them from vaccination, as it does from other medical treatments. All well and good. If they personally want to refuse treatments for themselves, that’s fine, but they don’t have the right to make their children martyrs to their faith. Just like it’s illegal for parents to refuse to give a diabetic child insulin because it’s against their religion, so should it be illegal to refuse vaccination because of faith.
Ultimately it comes down to the fact that refusing to vaccinate your child is tantamount to neglect and borderline abuse. I know some well-meaning buffoons think they’re doing their child a favor and saving it from possible autism, but there’s no link at all between vaccines and autism, so that doesn’t work. Yes, there is a slight risk from the vaccine itself, but that’s lower than the risk of miserable, horrible side-effects or death from a disease.
So let’s pass some laws. Let’s make vaccination mandatory and punish those who refuse to vaccinate their kids. It’s better for the public as a whole and for the kids in question, and there is no reasonable defense for not doing it.