The United States is racing toward rolling back our amazing record on ending childhood diseases like measles through the states’ generous exemptions for religious and philosophical objectors. We are going to lose “herd immunity” and have more serious and potentially deadly diseases among us due to these misguided exemptions. These exemptions are a direct attack on the larger public good.
Who suffers if these diseases return (other than the children who catch the diseases because they lack immunity, which is bad enough)? Pregnant women, the elderly, and the children who are immune-compromised. Let’s also not forget the adults who were not immunized for chickenpox as children and then as adults develop shingles, which is often extremely painful. Twenty percent of those adults who get shingles will continue to feel that pain even after the rash is gone.
Religious Exemptions to Childhood Vaccines Undermine the Public Good
How did we reach this stage? First, it is the sublimation of the public good to specific claims of religious liberty. Since the 1990s, the push for religious liberty in the United States has become a nearly unstoppable, Nietzschean will to power, which demands what it wants regardless of who is harmed. We are supposed to focus solely on the beleaguered believer even when that believer is putting the public at risk and causing others to suffer.
The United States Supreme Court has more than once approved immunization laws even when they are applied to dissenters in Jacobson v. Massachusetts and Zucht v. King. The Court reasoned that this is a prime example of a public good that permits the government to trump the demands of individual citizens. The Court was correct.
In the wake of a widespread measles outbreak in 2018-19, primarily among ultra-Orthodox Jews, New York recently eliminated its religious exemption for any child who is going to school with other children. (The state retained the medical exemption, which of course is necessary.) Parents can still refuse to vaccinate if they engage in home-schooling. This compromise is completely consistent with the Supreme Court’s reasoning, not to mention common sense: If you don’t want to vaccinate your children in New York, you have to educate them at home to reduce the risk to everyone else. It’s all about the public good.
Of course, some New York religious parents are arguing that having to get their children vaccinated violates their religious beliefs, and have gone to court. A federal court recently, and quite correctly, ruled against them, as reported here.
New York’s new law followed California’s 2015 elimination of personal belief exemptions in its vaccination law. California lawmakers definitely improved vaccination rates in California, though after it was in place, there was a sudden uptick in medical exemptions, which is suspect, as explained here. Now California, quite rightly, is considering narrowing this loophole, because it is quite serious about herd immunity and the larger public interest in avoiding deadly diseases. That is what lawmakers are supposed to do – protect us from harm.
Some Celebrities Are the Co-Conspirators with Religious Believers Undermining Herd Immunity
Celebrities with misinformed and anti-science views on vaccination have been the other force undermining vaccination rates beyond religious believers. Who would seek out a medical exemption for their child even if their health didn’t require it? Well, in California, that would be Hollywood stars.
Celebrities have the capacity to move messages widely – even if those messages harm others. Some have crusaded with their anti-vaccine messages, despite the risks to pregnant women, the elderly, and children. In a refreshing moment, a member of the media has taken a strong, principled stand against the media’s slavish coverage of celebrities who oppose childhood vaccinations. Self Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Carolyn Kylstra, recently authored an op-ed for the New York Times entitled: “What Cares What Celebrities Think About Vaccines?” here. Amen, sister. Would the press approvingly cover a Hollywood type who joined the Flat Earth Society as though it were offering a viable alternative to the scientific fact that the world is round? I hope not. It’s just wrongheaded.
Let’s Focus on the Children: This Is Their Civil Rights Issue
This issue is not just about what parents want for their children. Even more importantly, it’s about children’s civil rights to life and health. Parents who are permitted to choose not to vaccinate their children are recklessly endangering their own kids’ health now and later in life. But they are not only endangering their own children. They are also endangering the children who will be near their children in schools, extracurricular activities, houses of worship, or public spaces. This is simply an unreasonable risk.
Parents are legally obligated not to abuse or neglect their children, because children are humans with their own rights, not the property of the adults. Children are the future, and must be nurtured and protected from harm to reach their full potential. Again, this issue—mandatory childhood vaccination—is about one bottom line: the public good demands it.