Vaccinations: The Wrong Discussion

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about vaccinations and their potentially negative impact (or lack thereof) on the population.  I feel like, on some level, the argument is missing the point because the participants are talking past one another.

On the one hand, there’s an argument that vaccines cause some kind of unpleasant side effect (most recently, a claim that they cause autism, which I don’t accept).  Sometimes, the body does have a mild reaction to an injection that might last a few days, one that does resemble illness.  I consider those a small price to pay for the protection gained from most vaccines, and I would support making them more widely available at lower (or no) personal cost for the public benefit.

Where the argument seems to break down is when people touting vaccines insist that absolutely everybody must be vaccinated (especially without specifying diseases), even against their will.  There is a basic principle of bodily autonomy that says people get to choose what does and does not happen to their bodies.  Even if it is actually good for somebody, they have a right to refuse medical treatment.

On top of this main discussion is another, more specific problem.  Even if vaccines in general are fine, there can be specific vaccines that have problems or get rushed to the market too quickly.  Even if every vaccine on the market is completely fine right now, there could be one developed in the future that does have unexpected complications that a person could reasonably refuse.

And the arguments tend to presuppose all the other conditions for getting a vaccine are fine, too.  It is possible to have a doctor you do not trust to administer the vaccine, or whom you have recently decided does not have your best interests at heart and is instead a money grubbing bastard insistent on selling you a service.  Maybe you just don’t have the money for it.  Maybe the person has a compromised immune system and can’t be vaccinated safely, but the bone-headed doctor cannot be bothered to read a medical chart properly.  Maybe it is a vaccination for a disease that only affects one sex, of which you are not a member.  The reason for refusal does not matter.  We understand that “no means no” when we’re talking about people’s bodies in other situations, but for some reason your individual right to manage your own body has slipped out of mind in this case.

The discussion really breaks down when discussing children, who generally aren’t allowed the ability to make big decisions for themselves.  Children also happen to be the major recipients of vaccines, considering that disease used to kill many of them at a young age.  The question comes down to whether the parents or the state is going to make the decision regarding a child’s vaccinations.  Since it is the parents who are responsible for paying for it, the parents who are stuck raising the child if something did go wrong, and the parents who suffer most when doctors make a mistake (which is currently the third leading cause of death in this country), I think it is the parents who should make the decision.  Part of the price of freedom is that sometimes people make mistakes, but so long as we allow parents to be in charge of their children’s lives, I think the decision has to stay with them.

The other point in the argument is that unvaccinated children spread diseases that were previously virtually wiped out through vaccinations, often to other children who (for some reason) are not able to be vaccinated.  It is true that this undermines “herd immunity”, which prevents disease from being able to spread even when there are members who could be susceptible to it.

I consider it unfortunate, but people frequently make decisions that hurt other people.  There has to be some recognition that, in order to be a free people, we can’t be expected to constantly take care of everyone else.  It is good citizenship to be so socially minded, but that can’t always trump our basic human rights.  In this case, that right is bodily autonomy.

I realize that sometimes parents will make the wrong decision, and it is possible that their children will die from it.  I believe that’s the responsibility people take on when they become a parent, and if they choose wrong, then it is natural selection at work.  I do not see this as a case of neglect, but a deliberate, willful choice by the parent to make a decision that happens to be wrong.  Sometimes that happens, and maybe their children will suffer or die for it.  Sometimes, other people’s children will suffer and die for it.

So yes, I believe respecting bodily autonomy trumps the social benefit of suppressing disease.  I believe that having the government mandate what is and is not done with your body is even worse than having pestilence running amok.  Disease is easier to fight than bad policy, anyway.

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