The Atlantic

Are Anti-vaxxers Conscientious Objectors?

When it comes to public health, there’s a duty to make moral decisions communally.
Source: Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

By April, 2019 was already a bad year for measles. Outbreaks were occurring all over the world, including in Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Sudan, Thailand, and Ukraine. In the Philippines, more than 200 people, most of them children, had died from measles in January and February. By the end of February, 13 deaths had been reported in Europe. And the European outbreak had already traveled to the United States, where a state of emergency was declared in Washington State. In March and April, emergencies were declared in Rockland County, New York, and New York City, where measles had traveled from Israel. Like the United States, Israel has high overall vaccination rates, but in some communities, many people have chosen not to vaccinate their children.

A public-health emergency allows officials to limit individual liberties. Unvaccinated people were banned from enclosed public places in Rockland County and fined if they failed to comply with, in which the Supreme Court interpreted vaccination as a form of self-defense, finding that “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.” Legally, a person carrying an infectious disease is not unlike a person carrying a weapon.

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