For as long as the U.S. has been a sovereign nation, the American people have struggled to balance the rights of the individual with the rights of the collective. The Constitution wasn’t ratified until the Bill of Rights became law — and even they didn’t solve every problem.
We’ve spent the past two centuries debating how they work and how to treat people justly while upholding the Constitution. From gun control to health insurance, the proper role of the government in the lives of individual Americans has never been more unclear.
This issue also extends to the growing debate surrounding vaccinations and public health. The anti-vaccination movement is no new phenomenon — it can be traced back to eighteenth century England, when Reverend Edmund Massey called vaccines “diabolical operations” in a sermon. He argued sickness was God’s punishment for man’s sins and vaccines thwarted the will of the Divine. Religious exemptions to mandatory vaccinations are legal in 48 states, despite Supreme Court cases which question the legality of doing so. In the 1944 case Prince v. Massachusetts, the Court affirmed that “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
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Yet a majority of the nation— Wisconsin included — continues to allow religious exemptions from mandatory vaccinations. Wisconsin is one of 18 states that even allows for personal conviction waivers, a much less common route for mandatory vaccination exemptions based on one’s personal philosophy. This law grants Americans power in a deeply personal part of their lives, and allows them to make personal health care decisions without government interference.
But the government’s job is to make decisions in pursuit of the public good, and it isn’t controversial to say the anti-vaccination movement endangers public health. Increased immunization rates resulted in a significantly smaller risk for infectious disease. If a significant portion of the population is protected from infection, those who are unable to receive vaccination because of age or illness are provided herd immunity. Though they’re never really free from the risk of disease, their immunity to diseases prevents the unimmunized from coming in contact with the disease itself.
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The principle of herd immunity has led to the eradication of smallpox and the near-eradication of polio. But herd immunity is only achieved through widespread vaccination. An increase of unvaccinated people decreases the efficiency of herd immunity, and puts immune-deficient people at risk. Requiring vaccinations is in the public’s best interest, and by extension, should be within the government’s wheelhouse. Most importantly, personal conviction waivers are a dangerous caveat to herd immunity, and Wisconsin should consider limiting or abandoning the practice completely.
The amount of personal conviction waivers in Wisconsin have been increasing steadily over the past few years, meaning more are going unvaccinated. This makes the protection offered by herd immunity weaker and endangers those who aren’t vaccinated. Furthermore, it allows infectious diseases that seem passe to rear their ugly head.
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While the health benefits to widespread vaccinations are obvious, the government’s role in regulating and requiring vaccinations is anything but clear. The issue is eerily reminiscent of the Tragedy of the Commons, a principle developed in an essay by sociologist Garrett Hardin, which describes the challenges that occur when the rights and well being of the individual interfere with the well being of the collective. In the case of vaccinations, an individual may believe it is within their best interest to go unimmunized, which detracts from the well being of the collective. So for the collective to thrive, the individual must give up their right to remain unvaccinated.
Hardin’s essay provides definition to the principle, but doesn’t solve the problem it presents. The “… problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality,” Hardin said.
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So while there may be no direct statute or principle that directly grants the government power to enforce required vaccinations, science and logic prove it is in the public’s best interest to allow the government to do so. Rather, we must extend our morality and protect those who are ill from other infectious diseases. Giving up a single individual right has the opportunity to save the lives of thousands. The choice is clear — personal conviction waivers need to go.
The conflict between individual rights and government control may fester for years to come, but so will the truth that it’s always within our rights to do what is right.
Abigail Steinberg ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science and journalism.