One doesn’t look for much common sense in a state whose politics is often dictated by fads and liberal myths and run by an aging politician who embodies most of what is wrong with American politics. Nevertheless, California Governor Jerry Brown deserves our applause for signing a mandatory vaccination bill that ended most exemptions for religious or personal reasons for parents of school children on Tuesday. This has prompted an outcry from critics that believe the bill, which allows exemptions based on health, to be a coercive measure that wrongfully interferes with the rights of parents to make health care decisions for their children who would not be permitted to stay in school if they remain unvaccinated. Some argue that the law infringes on religious liberty and may also be illegal because the state Constitution guarantees a right to public education. These are serious arguments that speak to a legitimate worry about expanding the power of government and of infringing on religious freedom. Nevertheless, the vaccination law is a good idea because its purpose — maintaining public safety — is a fundamental purpose of government. Another reason to favor it is the fact that most of the resistance is rooted in irrational myths about vaccines used to prevent infectious diseases that rational observers are obligated to oppose.
No measure that does anything to increase the scope of an already bloated state bureaucracy should be viewed with anything but concern. Moreover, given the steady incursions of the federal government against religious liberty via ObamaCare and what may happen in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision to religious institutions that won’t change their beliefs to conform to that new reality, anything that takes away religious exemptions can only be contemplated as a last resort. But if libertarians believe that the fundamental purpose of government is to defend our freedom, we must start such a discussion by recognizing that its first job is to ensure public safety.
No freedom, not even those guaranteed by the First Amendment, is absolute. Our individual rights to make choices for our children and ourselves ends at the point when those decisions directly impact the safety of our neighbors and their kids. And that is exactly what happens when a critical mass of children are not vaccinated.
Opponents of mandatory vaccination laws say that if individuals want to take the risks that go with refraining from vaccinations, they should be allowed to do so. But the basic fact is that, on a societal level, once a critical mass of children are not vaccinated, dangerous diseases that were largely wiped out begin to come back. Mass vaccination creates a “herd immunity” for the entire community since even those who don’t get the shot for various reasons, such as pregnant women, infants, or individuals whose immune system is compromised, get a benefit because the spread of disease is contained. The inalienable right to make a fist ends at the tip of another person’s nose. Thus vaccination is more than a personal option; it is a societal choice.
That brings us to the reason that has driven most of the opposition to vaccines. In recent years, an urban myth about vaccines being responsible for the spread of autism has spread from the margins to mainstream pop culture where it has been championed by various celebrities that have no medical or research expertise. Study after study has proven that there is no link between autism and vaccines. Yet like most such irrational beliefs, the autism myth has survived largely because it fits in with a post-modern mindset that views science cynically and places blind faith in “natural” or “organic” remedies regardless of their merit. It would be unconscionable for those responsible for public health to allow such irrational reasoning to prevent them from acting to ensure the safety of the community. That’s why the decision of some politicians who ought to know better — like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senator Rand Paul — to avoid taking a strong stand in favor of mandatory vaccination was so discouraging.
If, like the facts about smoking or drinking, individuals were able to make decisions about vaccines that would affect only their own health rather than that of the community as a whole, they would be within their rights to oppose vaccines. But that is not the case. Allowing increasing numbers of unvaccinated children into schools is a prescription for more outbreaks of measles like the one that happened at Disneyland late last year that influenced the California legislature to pass the law Brown signed yesterday.
It is to be hoped that the vaccination law survives legal challenges and that similar tough measures will be adopted elsewhere. The cost of allowing diseases that should be wiped out to come back is simply too high for us to allow irrational arguments or even legitimate concerns about government power, to endanger the health, if not the lives, of all Americans.