The editors of Scientific American magazine have come out with a strong editorial arguing that the present exceptions for vaccinations given to people based on their religious and philosophical beliefs is threatening public health. While many of the people seeking exceptions do so on religious grounds and come from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities or Muslim or Christian academies or alternative-learning institutions, quite a few claim philosophical exemptions because they have been frightened by the refuted study of Andrew Wakefield that has been touted by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and spread widely over social media.
There isn’t an iota of doubt that vaccines are an overwhelmingly safe and effective way to prevent measles and other diseases, including mumps, rubella, poliomyelitis and pertussis. All 50 states mandate that children entering school get immunized unless they have a medical exemption. Yet almost every state also offers religious exemptions, and more than a dozen offer personal belief/philosophical ones as well. California, Mississippi, West Virginia, Maine and, most recently, New York State have gotten rid of all nonmedical waivers. The others must follow suit. It’s imperative for protecting public health.
Many people who choose not to vaccinate believe no government should force them to put medicine into their bodies or their children’s. They frame the choice as a personal right, but they are not taking into account the rights of others, including their own children, to be free of disease. When it comes to balancing the two, we need to consider the needs of the community as well as those of the individual. The Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that states have the authority to require vaccination against smallpox, and in Prince v. Massachusetts it reaffirmed that the right to religious liberty does not include the right to expose a child or the community to disease.
Some experts argue we should just make it more difficult to obtain religious and philosophical exemptions. But unless the exemptions are removed completely, there will always be people who want to use them. Partial elimination, as the Washington State Senate enacted in the case of philosophical exemptions for the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine alone, is also shortsighted because it sends the message that some immunizations are less important than others. The only surefire solution is to eliminate nonmedical exemptions to recommended vaccines.
People who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons—such as those with compromised immune systems—should of course remain exempt. But there is no legitimate argument against vaccination for the vast majority of healthy people, and there are many powerful arguments in favor of it. Refusing to vaccinate is not a matter of freedom. It’s a matter of public safety.
Of course, convincing people will be almost impossible since they will claim that the push for vaccination is a conspiracy by the medical-pharmaceutical industry in order to make money. The fact that the medical-pharmaceutical industry is greedy and corrupt means that those who try to argue for vaccines on purely scientific grounds have a tough time. The state legislatures really have to act.