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Vaccines and the right to refuse

October 20, 2013

sayNo
Scientists have been studying disease transmission since at least the 19th century. We now have reams upon reams of peer-reviewed research and detailed mathematical models on the topic. For some diseases, we know both the underlying pathogens and transport mechanism. As a result of this research, we know that mass immunization enhances public safety. We can identify the conditions under which vaccines will be effective. The complete eradication of smallpox, and the containment of rubella, polio, measles, mumps, chicken-pox and typhoid testify to the depth of our knowledge.

Despite this understanding, and despite the fact we know how and why vaccines contribute to public safety, we still allow people to refuse vaccinations. This is a non-trivial point. There is explicit, peer-reviewed research proving a certain behavior–not getting vaccinated–causes a specific harm to both the individual and society. And we still allow it to be practiced. Even more strongly, we also allow parents to impose it on their children, and prevent them from getting vaccinated. I am not arguing that this is right. Only that, even in situations with overpowering evidence, society may still value individual and parental rights over preventing public harm.

Contrast vaccines with evolution. We in the scientific community have essentially zero evidence that rejecting evolution causes harm on any level. And yet, there is no analogous public debate. Why not?

Personal autonomy and parental rights are highly cherished values in America. Leading health journals themselves argue for expanding the right to refuse medical treatment. There is a large, large body of case law asserting parental rights over their children. So even if we could prove that believing in creationism causes harm (we can’t), and that believing in evolution brings concrete benefits (it doesn’t), you could make a legitimate argument that citizens have the right to refuse evolution for both themselves and their children. Just as there is a right to refuse medical treatment, why isn’t there a right to refuse knowledge? To just say no to evolution because doing so makes you happy?

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