To say that those who, either in total or just the mandated school-entry immunizations, are opposed to vaccinations are unhappy would be an understatement. Moves to remove non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements are met with arguments about personal freedom, that this is no different than what the Nazis did to the Jews during the Holocaust, or that the government is taking away people's beliefs or rights.
So what's going on? Is the government taking away people's beliefs? Are they infringing on our rights as citizens? And what about the children who are affected by all of this?
A tweet someone sent me the other day got me thinking a little more about these questions. This person had replied to one of my tweets from 2012. I had linked to an op-ed piece by a Vermont senator who wrote in support of a bill that would eliminate the philosophical belief exemption to school immunizations in that state. The person who tweeted to me seemed just a little upset:
The tweet reads:
@tweek75 based upon what ? he has no right, its a shame, I'll never vote for him again, to remove others beliefs is unjustI tried to explain that the senator was not removing anyone's beliefs, but rather that personal beliefs should not be a basis for skipping immunizations required for school. I guess it was rude for me to clarify what the senator meant, or something, since this person, who out of the blue replied to my 3-year-old tweet, blocked me. It's a tactic that anti-vaccine types have started resorting to with increasing regularity on Twitter.
At any rate, contrary to my interlocutor's thoughts on the matter, laws that eliminate the personal/philosophical belief exemption to required school immunizations do not "remove others' beliefs". Everyone is free to believe whatever they want, and the government can't do squat about it. You could believe that tiny faeries are zipping around inside your television, painting the screen to produce the images you see, and the government would be unable to force you to stop believing that. In the same way, you can believe all you want that vaccines are bad, evil things. You'd be wrong, but you could believe it without worrying about the government breaking into your home, strapping you down to a chair and doing some sort of Clockwork Orange job on you (and even in the fictional story, that didn't work too well, either).
Maybe they actually think this is what would happen?
Perhaps I'm being a bit too literal. Maybe what that person really meant is that it's unjust to remove the right to act on one's beliefs, that one should have the right to forgo mandated school immunizations for some sort of personal belief. Whether or not it is unjust is a matter of context. How is the belief acted upon? What are the effects of acting on the belief?
If acting on the belief harms no one, then there is no issue. You should be free to act on it. However, when the action results in harm or potential harm to others, it is a different matter entirely. You might believe that being forced to stop at a red light or obeying the speed limit infringes on your rights to drive when and where you want to go at the speed you want to go, but acting on that belief is illegal, since you could harm other people. Driving, itself, is a privilege, not a right. In the same way, attending school is a privilege, not a right. And just like acting on your rather unorthodox driving beliefs could harm others, acting on a belief that vaccines are bad and your child should not get them could harm others. Namely, your child and the other students who attend the school. (And just to preempt any "but if vaccines work, then what does it matter?" arguments, please read this post.)
Privileges, and even rights, also come with responsibilities. Part of the responsibility of attending school or day care, where you have a lot of children who can spread illnesses to one another very easily, is doing your part to take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of getting those other children sick, insofar as you are able to do so. If you can, but simply do not wish to take that responsibility, then you should not get the privilege.
Ah, you might say, but aren't kids required to attend school? They are required to be educated. How that is accomplished is up to the child's parents or guardians. They can enroll in free public school. They can pay for private school. They can home school. Most states include private schools in the vaccine mandates, but home schooling is an option for those who steadfastly refuse to immunize their children.
Another individual upset about the turn of events, Heather Barajas, also complained about a law in California that would remove philosophical belief exemptions. She reasoned that even home schooling was not an option, since California considers home schooling a "private school". While there is some truth to her statement, it's not entirely true, and it is certainly misleading. California considers home schooling the same as a "private school" if it meets certain requirements and the parents file an affidavit in accordance with the state's education code. However, as noted by the HomeSchool Association of California, if their child is taught by a certified tutor in accordance with Education Code §48224, they are exempt from enrolling in public or private schools and, thus, are also exempt from school immunization requirements.
There are still those who would argue that they should be allowed to send their kid to school, and that it's their right to choose what their child does or does not receive, as far as medical care. The claims generally focus on the parents' rights. "It's my right to decide. It's my child." What they are ignoring, though, and what far too few in the media emphasize, are their children's rights. Their children are actual human beings with rights of their own. They are not property. They have the right to be protected from preventable diseases. They have the right to not suffer the greater risk of harm from illness. When an anti-vaccine parent acts on their "right" to not vaccinate their child, they are inherently taking away their child's right to a reduced risk of infection by a vaccine-preventable disease, not to mention their classmates' similar rights.
Despite the hyperbole from anti-vaccine activists, there are no forced vaccinations. No one is coming to your house, holding you back while your child is immunized against your wishes. If you do not want to immunize your child, no jack-booted thugs are going to hunt your down and kick open your door. The only thing that will happen is that your child will not be allowed to attend the school. That's it. You can hold whatever beliefs you want, and you can even act on those beliefs, to one degree or another. But just remember, your choices have consequences. They come with responsibilities. And if you are not prepared to accept those responsibilities, then perhaps you should rethink your beliefs.
The government isn't taking away people's beliefs or the right to believe things, they're just finally asking parents to take responsibility.