September 10, 2012

Religious Objections to Vaccination

vaccinationYou are a parent, and you have a child in elementary school. Like most parents, you took your child to the doctor for vaccinations. Doing so was required by your child's school district, but you would have done so anyway because you recognize the value of vaccinations in protecting the health of your child and reducing the spread of communicable diseases. With me so far?

Now suppose that you learn that a child in the same class as your own child was not vaccinated. It would be natural for you to wonder why this other child was not required to be vaccinated like yours was, and you might also wonder what is wrong with this child's parents. If you guessed that the answer to both questions was religion, you'd be correct.

In the state of New Mexico, a parent who objects to vaccinations on religious grounds does not have to his or her child vaccinated. As Austin Cline (About.com) points out, the reasons required to obtain such an exemption can be medical or religious but cannot be based on any other philosophical reasoning (i.e., parents with secular objections need not apply). If you think this sounds like religious privilege, I agree. Austin suggests that this law probably will not survive legal challenge.

My question is a bit different. Should anyone without a valid medical reason be able to opt out of vaccinating his or her child? Doesn't it matter that doing so may put other children at risk? Do we not have a shared interest in preventing communicable diseases?

I realize that there are some religious that object to any form of vaccination and that adherents of such religions could frame this as a church-state issue. They could argue that the requirement to have their children vaccinated violates their free exercise of religion. Do you think this is a valid argument?

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