Two perspectives on the anti-vaccination movement: What is the government’s role?

The anti-vaccine movement, which started as a relatively limited movement several years ago, has mushroomed into a controversy that is unnecessarily endangering the health and safety of many Americans. There are a host of reasons why parents are opting out of vaccinations. Some opt out of vaccines for religious regions, and some opt out due to now-discredited theories regarding the medical risk associated with vaccines.

However, anti-vaccine groups are now discussing vaccines as an issue of personal freedom. This does raise an interesting question: To what extent can our government coerce somebody into undergoing a medical procedure?

Many vaccine opponents argue that forcing parents to vaccinate their children is an impediment to personal freedom, which is bad and scary and authoritarian. However, a quick glance into the history books will show that America has had a long tradition of sacrificing personal freedom for some greater social or political benefit; more often than not, this has been to ensure that the basic needs of the American people are taken care of.

First, freedom can have a variety of meanings and contexts. For example, while Americans tend to think of freedom as something they are personally entitled to, freedom can also be something that an entire nation is collectively concerned with. America is also free in the sense that we can make decisions as an entire state. Our government has certain abilities that may impede individual freedom but benefit our society as a whole.

For example, the federal government can implement a military draft in times of war. Is this an intrusion on personal freedom? Of course. It may actually be the most intense intrusion on personal freedom our government is capable of. However, it is done only with the concern of national security, which, in times of crisis, trumps our individual right to not join the military. Unfortunately, living in the international community has very real safety threats, threats that we as relatively privileged American citizens tend not to think about. Our government needs to have the ability to draft U.S. citizens when our ability to maintain national security is threatened.

Another example is America’s use of eminent domain. Eminent domain allows the our government to force an individual to give up their property for public use. For example, the Illinois state government invoked eminent domain so that O’Hare Airport could expand its facilities. Because the state argued that the expanded facilities were necessary for economic development the eminent domain argument held The case was settled in favor of the state forcing a church to give up part of its plot of land that was used as a cemetery.

Along with national security and economic development, our government is obligated to ensure the health of the public. Our government has an extensive practice of intruding on personal freedom for greater public health concerns. For example, many local municipalities put fluoride in tap water to prevent widespread oral diseases. Our government can also quarantine people with dangerous illnesses to ensure the safety of the public, as we recently saw during the ebola crisis. During nuclear meltdowns, the government reserves the right to force citizens to evacuate a town.

Vaccine opponents have challenged the claim that the government has the right to interfere with personal freedom for the greater benefit of public health. However, state and federal governments have already set the precedent by taking an active role in other issues of public health.

The health of children, who have no say in whether they are vaccinated or not, is absolutely a matter of public health. Therefore, the government has the precedent it needs to make a final decision on whether parents must force their children to get vaccinations. Our government must maintain a fine balance between personal freedoms and greater public concerns. Unfortunately for vaccine opponents, their decisions to not vaccinate their children have very real consequences, not only for their children but for those who are too vulnerable to get vaccinated.

Just as our government can force us to join the army for the sake of national security, bulldoze our homes for the sake of economic development, place chemicals in our water or force us to evacuate our homes to prevent widespread death, our government ought to start enforcing stricter vaccination requirements. Vaccine opponents must come to grips with the fact that the state can and will sacrifice your freedom for the greater public good without hesitation, as is necessary for the functionality of any country as successful as ours.