Here’s a report from Australia:
“The Australian government has decided to deprive parents of their tax benefits if they do not immunise their children against diseases.
Some families could lose over $2,000 per a child. And while the benefits of vaccination, for individual children, and for the population, far outweigh any risks, some parents question the policy, and do not like money coming into the equation.”
I think it’s trivial to say that this is a case of a government interfering in the choices of a family. Whether this interference is warranted, however… Does the government of a country have the right to financially penalise a family for making choices that don’t directly affect anyone else?
Well, that’s not a small question, so we need to drill down into the details a little. For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to restrict the question to people who are legally in the country and their children (biological or otherwise).
I am also not going to differentiate between ‘a fine’ and ‘withholding tax benefits such that the people have to pay higher taxes’. I don’t see a significant difference here, and while some folk may want to split hairs over this, I’m not going to argue about this short of someone providing a well-thought-out argument detailing the difference.
So what is the relationship between the State, and these people? What rights do they have, and what obligations? To whom is the State beholden?
It would seem to me that the State has a wide variety of obligations, which can be generally summed up simply as ‘providing the framework for people to live their lives as they see fit, insofar as their choices do not endanger that framework, or other people’. Of course, the State has to allow for that framework to be altered over time, so there must be legitimate ways to do so (i.e. engaging in the democratic process), and the State cannot be partial with regards to non-harmful belief systems: all religions (and such) must be weighed as equal (which, in effect, means ignoring the supernatural component and special pleading of all religions).
This summation is really doing the bulk of the work in my argument, so if you disagree with the conclusions, the odds are that you disagree with my assessment of the State.
The purposes of vaccines that I’m going to focus on are the reduction of the incidence and transmission of diseases. Those people who are vaccinated are less likely to become infected by a disease, and should they become infected, they will likely cope with the illness better than if they were not vaccinated. Consider the vaccine analogous to your immune system being trained to fight an illness: sure, it can fight without training, but it’s a lot more effective with training.
Furthermore, there are people present in the State who cannot be vaccinated for a variety of medical reasons (allergies, compromised immune systems, etc). The people who are vaccinated, however, are less like to transmit the disease, thus form a sort of social buffer around the people who cannot be vaccinated: as fewer people in a vaccinated population will become infected, we therefore reduce the pathways that the illness can take to reach the unvaccinated people.
Is there a risk to being vaccinated? Absolutely. But that risk is several orders of magnitude lower than the risk undertaken by choosing not to be vaccinated. As it is prudent and rational to choose the lower risk over the higher risk, it is prudent and rational to choose to be vaccinated over being not-vaccinated.
Some people want to argue, however, that they wish to accept the odds (for whatever reasons); that to vaccinate should be their choice, and their choice alone. Isn’t it their life, and for them to decide what is to be done with it?
Actually… No, it isn’t. Because we are not talking about rational Agents making decisions about themselves: we are talking about people making decisions about people-who-are-not-agents, and that those decisions will have a knock-on effect on other people within the State. Basically, it’s fair game for me to sit at home, drink copious amounts of alcohol, and then drive at high-speed around my private race-track: I’m a danger only to myself. The moment I want to take my car out onto the highway, however, the State has an obligation to check my behaviour.
Similarly, if I have a child, I don’t have a right to harm that child (or put that child at risk) on a whim. While the child is neither an agent nor a citizen, the State has an obligation to ensure that no children are harmed (or put at risk), without a reason that is justifiable to the state. Driving a car with a child while under the effect of alcohol is unjustifiable, unless (for example) the child is suffering a medical emergency and there is no other way to get that child the medical attention that they need. Here the risk of impaired driving must be balanced against the risk of leaving the child untreated: even if I have miscalculated the relative risks, my choice to drive is justifiable.
So if you wish to not-vaccinate your child, you need to justify that decision: you are choosing to expose your child to a higher risk than if you vaccinated (the relative costs of which are virtually zero, depending on the State in question). The argument of “well, vaccination is risky” is irrelevant: it’s a simple fact that not-vaccinating is more risky. The argument of “vaccinations are more risky than illnesses” is simply wrong. The argument of “my religion prohibits it” is irrelevant: the State is not concerned about your religion. You may have a made a choice about a religion, but your choice is now affecting your child: your choice has a realistic possibility of precluding their future choices.
Of course, these examples just look a the child in question and we can see that the anti-vaccination crowd doesn’t have a leg to stand on. To drive the nails further into the coffin: the choice not to vaccinate your child endangers all the children that that child goes to school with. Vaccination (as outlined at the start of this article) is not full immunisation: if a vaccinated child comes into frequent contact with infected children, their odds of contracting the illness increase with each contact even though they are vaccinated. And while it’s true that they will probably experience the illness with a lower severity than if they were not vaccinated, this doesn’t rule out their risk of death, or brain damage, or whatever else the disease may cause.
Regardless of the kinds of ‘rights’ people assume they have that allow them to risk their own related children, these supposed ‘rights’ do not extend to putting other, unrelated children at risk.
Furthermore, even if there were no increase in deaths amongst these children, and there was no long-term health effects from exposure to illness, the increased usage of medical facilities by the families in a State-subsidized health system warrants some kind of disincentive. Taking up a doctor’s time merely because you have refused to accept that vaccines present a lower health risk to your child than measles is a choice that takes a doctor away from other patients. The financial penalty may also go some way towards recouping/offsetting the cost of the frivolously used medical resources (by hiring more medical staff, and so on).
It should be clear, so far, that the State has a duty to enforce vaccination compliance, to protect the children of fools from the beliefs of those fools, and to protect the children of other people from same.
The question is now: what is the best way for the State to enforce compliance? What forms of enforcement achieve the goal of compliance, but minimise the amount of harm such enforcement necessarily entails?
The State could, of course, simply remove the children from the parents. This would seem, however, to be the maximally harmful choice assuming the only ‘problem’ with the parents is their choice about vaccinations: stripping children away from their parents is traumatic and likely to lead to all sorts of developmental problems for the kids.
The Australian Government has chosen to penalise parents through the tax system, not by adding an additional penalty, but by essentially saying “as you choose not to support the State and those people who dwell within the bounds of the State, so do we exempt you from certain benefits of dwelling within this State”. On the face of it, this seems like a good solution. However, I have mixed feelings about this.
Financial penalties disproportionally affect low-income families over middle or high-income families. A $2000 penalty is a devastating to a family on $20,000 a year, and a mild inconvenience to a family on $120,000 a year. One needs to look into the reasons for non-compliance and find out who the non-compliant group primarily consists of. If the group is mostly in the low-income bracket, because the cost of the vaccines are out of their reach, then this fine merely penalises the poor for being poor. If, on the other hand, the group primarily consists of the middle-to-high income families who are opting out for social/religious reasons, then the fine is much less problematic, but may not be effective. Furthermore, I’m concerned that this fine may be applied to families in the low-income bracket who simply forgot about the vaccine schedule, or their child was unavailable, or both parents were working, etc etc etc.
So: I think it’s entirely reasonable for a State to financially penalise families that choose not to vaccinate their children, both to disincentivise the risk that these parents are exposing their kids to (and the rest of the population), and to disincentivise the frivolous use of limited medical resources.
The best way to implement such a financial penalty? I’m not qualified to really drill down into this, but simple, across-the-board, flat rates make me wary.
Additionally: should someone show a reporter how to hold a baby prior to shooting the scene? I would have thought that that went without saying…
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