Freedom and Vaccination

So, recently on the Unfundamentalist Christians page, the discussion came up about a recent ruling that people who choose not to vaccinate their kids for religious reasons don’t get to send them to school during an outbreak. One person was arguing that this is a slippery slope to letting the government decide what you do with your body if you can’t afford to homeschool, and that it’s not really a serious public health concern anyway because it doesn’t affect the majority. (To be fair, he was fine with keeping unvaccinated kids home during an outbreak, but was concerned the decision could lead to not letting them attend public school at all.)

That’s obviously a fairly weak argument, especially the bit about the majority. The majority of people will never get cancer, either (one in two men and one in three women, according to the American Cancer Society). So, let’s just not worry about that, because natural selection will sort it out, right?

The other thing that people don’t get is that vaccines, while really really useful, are not perfect. Adults end up with a much less effective vaccine over time if they don’t get regular boosters. Not to mention that if you get enough of a virus in your system, it can overwhelm your immune system, even with the “extra training” it got from a vaccine. So, yes, choosing not to vaccinate, if enough people do it, does have risks for the vaccinated population.

I thought that whole “the government telling me what I have to put into my body” line of argument was interesting, because it seems to be a common trend in discussions of religious freedom. It’s the idea that not only are your religious beliefs and practices protected, but that the consequences of those beliefs should be applied to other people, rather than to you. It’s the idea that if you choose to make your child a health risk to the kids around him, that figuring out how to deal with that is the school’s problem, not yours. There are examples of this all over. It’s the expectation that if you’re a pharmacist who gets fired for refusing to provide birth control, you’re a victim of persecution rather than someone who chose a poor career fit and then refused to do their job. It’s not up to you to find a job that fits your beliefs. Rather, it’s up to your employer to work around it or your customers to put up with crappy treatment. Or if you work at the courthouse and don’t want to sign same-sex marriage licenses, you shouldn’t have to, even if that screws over taxpayers who came in expecting you to do the job you’re being paid for.

Or, recently, if you’re a secular business owner who chooses to be willfully misinformed about the nature of contraceptives, you can get all the tax benefits of providing insurance without actually meeting the minimum legal standards for that coverage.

I’m a big believer in religious freedom. But I don’t think it should be a Get Out of Jail Free card for any rule you feel shouldn’t apply to you. Particularly not when you’re asking other people—whether those are your employees, the taxpayers, or your kid’s classmates—to shoulder the burden of your beliefs.

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