Global Ethics Corner: Should Childhood Vaccinations Be Mandatory?

May 6, 2013

Childhood vaccination programs have been met with skepticism and hostility in the U.S. Some oppose them on religious grounds, while others worry about preservatives. Do governments have a right to make sure children are immunized against contagious diseases?

In the United States, immunization programs have often been met with skepticism, and sometimes even outright hostility. During the 1721 smallpox epidemic, for instance, the practice was opposed on religious grounds. If smallpox is punishment from God for our sins, the argument went, then vaccinations are attempts to circumvent God’s will.

More recently, government efforts to introduce mandatory child vaccinations have led to backlashes from a number of groups—particularly after some suggested a vaccine preservative could be linked to an increase in reported cases of autism since the 1990s. After further study, major medical institutions have all rejected that claim and to be doubly sure, the ingredient has been removed from most childhood vaccines. Yet many continue to believe that vaccinations cause autism.

As a result, most states permit parents to opt out from vaccination programs—and many do. But should parents be allowed to make that decision?

Organizations such as the Home School Legal Defense Association argue they should. Because vaccines can have adverse effects, they contend, it is a parent's right to decide whether a shot is worth the risk. Proponents of mandatory immunization, on the other hand, point out that these risks are negligible—especially when compared to the dangers of contracting the diseases against which we vaccinate.

What’s more, the private decision not to vaccinate has clear adverse effects for society as a whole. Diseases once on the path to extinction, such as polio and measles, have resurged as a result of drops in vaccination compliance.

The issue, then, is one of weighing parental autonomy against the interest of the government in protecting the population against disease.

What do you think? Are parents equipped to make informed decisions about vaccinations? When, if ever, are governments right to override parents' decisions for their children?

By Andreas Rekdal

For more information see:

Concerns about Autism, March 29, 2013, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance: Gates Foundation [also for pictures 12 & 13] Patrick Gage Kelley Library of Congress/Roger Smith Lawrence Lew Israel Defense Forces The Boatman Steven Depolo John Glenn UK Department for International Development Emily Michelle wooleywonderworks Julien Harneis John Keith Centers for Disease Control [also for picture 18] Miss Brown

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