Liberty vs. Safety: The vaccine debate heats up in a fledgling campaign year

Rand Paul vaccine

The last few years have seen an acceleration of medical vaccines as a hot button political issue. As formerly dormant diseases have resurfaced along with communities that shun science and common sense, the backlash has been fierce. A USA Today columnist is even calling for criminal prosecution and jail time for those who don’t vaccinate their children. But in the land of the free is that really appropriate, no matter the public health risk? And do we really want our politicians weighing in?

Well, it is a presidential campaign year, so the latter is unavoidable. President Obama just suggested everyone vaccinate, at least for measles, which has seen had a comeback this year. A day later, Chris Christie suggested the government approach to the problem should balance public health and personal choice concerns. Now old reports are being dredged up that Rand Paul was a member of an anti-vaccine organization, both Hillary Clinton and Obama raised questions about vaccines and autism in the 2008 campaign, and Obama’s new budget proposal cuts $50 million from an immunization program. As the 2016 campaign ramps up alongside preventable disease rates, more questions will be asked about it, more gaffes will be uttered, and more positions will be pandered.

It is medically indisputable that everyone who is physically able should be vaccinated. But should it be mandatory? USA Today suggests that and more:

Put simply, no person has the right to threaten the safety of his community. Like drunken drivers, the unvaccinated pose an imminent danger to others. They pose a lethal threat to the most vulnerable: the immunocompromised, such as HIV or cancer patients, and infants who have yet to receive their vaccines.

Anti-vaccine parents are turning their children into little walking time bombs. They ought to be charged for endangering their children and others.

There are a few problems with this. Should we prosecute for all vaccines? Even the highly ineffective annual flu shots? Just MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and whooping cough (pertussis)? Who decides which are mandatory? Lawmakers? A bureaucrat at the CDC or HHS?

As of right now, though it’s not the law in any state or federally that everyone must be vaccinated, so how do you criminally enforce not doing so? While these diseases are seeing increases lately, they are still incredibly rare. There were only about 600 cases of measles last year. That’s up exponentially from previous years, of course. But is it enough to criminalize just not receiving the vaccine?

The drunk driving analogy is actually a perfect one. How do we decide what behaviors are risky enough to criminalize? The 50 states have collectively decided that driving a car after having injested a certain amount of alcohol is risky enough to warrant severe criminal penalties. Are we approaching a time where we decide that not vaccinating your children is a risky enough behavior to warrant similar consequence? Perhaps. But should we?

I am of the opinion that behavior that might result in harm to others shouldn’t be punished. Only actual harm should be punished. Liberty is paramount. Public safety is vital, but is not the ultimate goal of a free society. It is the ultimate goal of an authoritarian one. Ideally, driving while under the influence of anything should not be illegal. It is already illegal to cause an accident and kill someone. Why do we need to also criminalize the behaviors that could possibly lead to that already illegal outcome? We have decided that the potential loss is too great a risk for such a minor loss of liberty exercised so irresponsibly. But make no mistake, it is a loss of liberty.

The same goes for vaccination. It is a matter of personal choice to vaccinate or not. It is a stupid, illiterate, irresponsible choice not to do so, but it remains one. We can limit that choice in certain spheres (public school, specific vocations), but I do not believe that even our safety-obsessed society has decided that the risk is so great as to limit it across the board.

As big a political fight as we had over the individual mandate to purchase health insurance in Obamacare, I imagine the arguments about a federal mandate to literally inject something into your body would be a bit more visceral. However, 60% of voters support such a mandate in a recent poll. A slightly lower 52% support banning unvaccinated children from public schools, which all states already do (though many have exemptions).

Maybe that’s the solution. If we must have mandatory vaccination, it should definitely be done only at the state level. Unless it is exercised like the previously mentioned healthcare mandate, with a tax penalty for opting out, the federal government doesn’t have such a general police power to enforce it anyway. States, though, can decide locally which vaccines should be mandatory for whom and what exemptions to allow. The penalty for not vaccinating should also necessarily be a state matter. Though even state mandates don’t satisfy all parties.

Hey, maybe the GOP can hold a primary debate discussing nothing but vaccines! What could go wrong?

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