Should you be able to sue anti-vaxxers? | The Tylt
The anti-vaccination movement is largely tied to "fraudulent research" from 1998 that attempted to show a link between vaccinations and autism in children. Some parents cite these concerns as well as religious reasons for why they choose not to vaccinate their children. Others argue anti-vaxxers should be held legally responsible for neglecting to vaccinate their children, thus putting others at risk, given that vaccines are not 100 percent effective. Should anti-vaxxers be sued?
Should you be able to sue anti-vaxxers?
In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared measles eradicated from the U.S., meaning outbreaks of measles within the U.S. are only caused by travelers bringing the disease into the country and passing it to those who have not been vaccinated.
As a result, there have been a number of measles outbreaks in the U.S. in recent years, including eight cases in Texas in early 2019. According to Texas Health and Human Services, measles is a highly contagious respiratory illness spread through coughing and sneezing. The Texas Department of State Health Services calls measles so contagious that "if someone has it, 90 percent of the people around that person who are not immune will become infected." In conclusion:
DSHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend children get a dose of measles vaccine at 12-15 months of age and again at 4-6 years. The measles vaccine is very effective, about 97 percent after two doses. Children too young to be vaccinated or who have only had one dose of vaccine are more likely to get infected.
With this in mind, many consider the failure to vaccinate children for highly-contagious diseases like measles to be nothing short of neglect.
But some maintain that no matter what the reason, parents have the right to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children. According to the National Vaccine Information Center, a known anti-vaccination organization:
What unites those defending an open discussion about vaccination and health is a commitment to protecting bodily integrity and defending the inalienable right to self-determination, which has been globally acknowledged as a human right.
A study from the National Center of Biotechnology Information lists the four categories why a parent might refrain from vaccinating their child, citing religious reasons, personal beliefs, safety concerns, or a desire for more information from doctors as the main examples. According to NCBI:
30 states that allow exemptions for children whose parents cite religious reasons and 18 states that make special accommodations for those expressing philosophical reasons.
Most people choose to vaccinate their children for things like polio, tetanus, and measles. Vaccines are typically administered early in life because kids' immune systems are not developed enough to fend off serious infections and diseases. According to Vaccines.gov, getting your child vaccinated helps protect others.
The idea that parents might be held liable for failing to vaccinate their children came from a 2013 paper in the Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics. According to The Daily Dot's Gillian Branstetter, the paper argued:
...quite deftly that, yes, if your child gets sick because of another parent’s neglect and dies, you could actually find that other parent legally responsible.
Not only do parents create a legitimate public health risk by failing to vaccinate their children, but they soak up public resources once an illness inevitably spreads from their children to others. Many believe this is more than enough reason for these parents to assume legal liability for such outbreaks. Branstetter concludes:
And like a motorist that neglects to look before pulling out of the drive, anti-vaxxer parents should be prepared for the consequences of their actions—both real and judicial.
But even Branstetter concedes:
The first hurdle, notes the paper’s authors, would be to link causation of one child’s illness from another child’s unvaccinated status.
Furthermore, the anti-vaxxer population might be smaller than people think, and therefore less of a threat. According to the Atlantic's Alexis C. Madrigal, despite panic surrounding the topic, "anti-vaccination activism" has been less influential than it appears:
Anti-vax world is smaller than we think: I found that a relatively small network of pages creates most of the anti-vaccine content that is widely shared. At the same time, a small network of “pro-science” pages also experiences viral success countering the anti-vax posts.
It seems the anti-vax movement might be more of a threat when it comes to the spread of misinformation than it is in the actual spread of disease. Certainly, each case must be treated with care and attention, but legal teams face a challenge in proving one child's illness is linked to another's lack of vaccination, or holding parents legally liable for their religious beliefs.