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Michelle Bachmann's latest words in the media made me think of this question: what the Objectivist position on child vaccination? Clearly vaccines have been a huge boon to mankind and have saved and helped countless people. Lately however, there is some contention about vaccines. Folks in government have always "forced" vaccines on the population as an ostensible way to get mass immunity in a population (see the eradication of diseases like smallpox and the virtual eradication of polio). My question is: what is the proper position on this? Is it OK for a government to require child vaccination against deadly diseases or is this some impingement on one's freedom to raise a child however one wishes to ? Clearly a child that comes down with diphtheria or whooping cough endangers many other kids in schools, playgrounds etc. On the other hand one sees the spectacle of drug companies lobbying government officials to "require" their particular products (see Gardasil). I would not want my kids exposed to preventable deadly diseases that can easily be inoculated against but on the other hand, I don't want them jabbed with some high-proft margin "shot-of-the-day" that some politician and drug company think is good.

asked Sep 17 '11 at 10:14

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


It is important to distinguish between the state forcing just any old person to get a vaccine, and the state forcing parents to give their children vaccines.

It is proper to outlaw child neglect or abuse. Failure to take adequate measures to ensure the health of your children, in certain circumstances, can be child neglect or abuse (consider the case of religious nutter parents who do not allow a medical procedure for their sick child that they know would save its life, and the child dies as a result). Parents have a duty to take reasonable measures to keep their children healthy.

In certain circumstances failure to vaccinate your child might be a form of neglect. It would be a fact specific question to determine whether any given failure to vaccinate was indeed neglect, but I think one could easily think up realistic situations that would fit the bill. Factors to consider might include the magnitude of risk to the child (i.e. how prevalent in the society the disease is and how dangerous the disease is), how effective the vaccine is, how costly the vaccine is, and whether alternative effective precautions can be taken.

For example, consider the following hypo: there is an Ebola pandemic; it is everywhere; it is easy to catch; it is deadly; however, a simple, cheap, readily available vaccine has been invented; the risks associated with the vaccine are proven to be minimal. In this hypothetical case, I believe it would be neglect to not get your child vaccinated--neglect that the State could rightfully prosecute you for.

Naturally, we would have to be careful to guard the parent's rights to make reasonable decisions about their children's medical care. We would have to recognize that not all things that would be good for a child should be required by law. Parent's have a wide range of reasonable action within which the State has no business stepping in to tell the parent what to do. The risk to the child from not getting vaccinated has to be so great that it rises to the level of neglect not to vaccinate the child before the state steps in. Thus many vaccines, which would otherwise clearly be a good idea to administer to your child, should not be mandatory because the risk is just not serious enough. The HPV vaccine clearly fits here--it is a good idea, but by no means such a serious threat that failing to protect against it is neglect. But when a parent steps outside of this range of reasonableness and endangers their children, the state must act to protect the children's rights.

Now it is debatable how such enforcement should proceed. Should the parent only be prosecuted if the child actual acquires the disease the vaccine is intended to prevent (a risk-realization regime), or should the mere failure to get the vaccine be prosecuted regardless of whether the child gets sick (a risk-creation regime)?

answered Sep 24 '11 at 17:40

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Sep 24 '11 at 17:45

This is a really thought provoking answer (as are most to my queries -- this forum is one of the most non-hysterical and sensible places to discuss almost any topic related to Objectivism). I, too, am perplexed at this whole topic: where does "neglect" begin (i.e. governmental force to assist the child) ? Also is there an implicit "loaded gun" aspect to vaccination where you clearly (with Ebola certainly) mortally endanger other people just by being near them?

(Sep 24 '11 at 18:23) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Yes, it all hinges on what can rightly be considered to be neglectful behavior on the part of a parent.

Regarding this, a parent has a moral (and ideally legal) responsibility to defend his child from real danger. If a vaccine is a necessary and possible means of this defense, then it should be legally required, just as a parent should be prosecuted for willingly allowing his toddler to wander about a busy street.

It is for the courts to decide what constitutes real, avoidable danger.

(Sep 24 '11 at 20:23) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

A vaccination is a form of self-defense, fundamentally. No one should be forced to take a vaccine.

The fact that children are forced to go to public schools is what creates this whole issue. Since our children are forced to be around other children who are potential threats, we are forced to vaccinate our children to prevent our children from becoming potential threats.

But imagine a world without public schools, for just a moment.

Taking vaccinations would be totally voluntary.

But any given school might require its students be vaccinated, and people who didn't want vaccinations could simply not send their kids to that school. They could go to a school which doesn't require vaccinations.

People who got ill could be quarantined, by virtue of the public threat they are. There could even be a special school for infected children (with each particular disease).

A healthy child is not an objective threat to anyone's health. A free market in education and a free market in vaccination would make this a non-issue. People would learn about the potential value of a vaccination, and act accordingly, rather than acting as sheep who only do what the government forces them to do.

answered Sep 18 '11 at 12:03

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

The more I think about this, the more I wonder if it is a children issue at all. What about malls, airports etc.? Would we want separate "non vaccination" malls and airports? I certainly don't want to catch smallpox when in line to buy a ticket or any other mass gathering spot (i.e. stadiums, train station etc.). Does the concept of "public health" have any standing at all? If one guy with a very communicable disease decides to board a plane, he subjects everyone to his disease. In fact he may not be visibly sick (see Typhoid Mary) What is the Objectivist position on this?

(Sep 18 '11 at 12:10) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

WOULD you catch smallpox, if you yourself are vaccinated? I guess that's a medical question that I can't answer, but at least it's my thought about it.

(Sep 21 '11 at 11:53) FCH FCH's gravatar image

Attempting to stay on my premise that vaccination is voluntary self-defense: if you are sick, and you know you are sick, and you go to a mall or plane and infect others, that would be a form of assault.

But what of the fact that many people don't yet know it when they are sick? That just means that each individual, to protect his own health, should probably get vaccinated.

It's just like wearing seat-belts in cars. You should do it, but you shouldn't be forced to do it.

(Sep 21 '11 at 14:04) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

And the only reason we are forced to wear seat-belts is because of the idea that the government is responsible for our safety, which stems from the idea that the government should pay for our health-care. If those two ideas went away, then vaccination would only be a personal thing -- as it should be.

(Sep 21 '11 at 14:06) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Nicely said John :-) Thanks.

(Sep 21 '11 at 14:40) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Another aspect to consider, however, is the parent's duty to keep their children healthy. If a parent deliberately denied a child health care and the child suffered as a result, it would be proper to prosecute the parents for their neglect. A similar case might be made for some vaccines--failure to vaccinate might be akin to neglecting your child. It would be a fact specific question to determine whether any given failure to vaccinate was indeed neglect, but I think one could easily think up realistic situations that would fit the bill.

(Sep 24 '11 at 16:53) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image
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Asked: Sep 17 '11 at 10:14

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Last updated: Sep 24 '11 at 20:23