Rights have limits

The Post Star on vaccinations in New York

June 20

A key constitutional concept that those opposed to vaccines don’t seem to appreciate is that rights have limits, and you don’t get to exercise your rights at the expense of someone else.

If, for example, your free exercise of religion involves human sacrifice, that isn’t protected by the First Amendment.

Likewise, you don’t get to put other people’s babies at risk of contracting dangerous diseases because you want your kids to prance around unvaccinated.

New York has done the right thing in passing a law that eliminates religious exemptions from the requirement that schoolchildren be vaccinated. Exemptions for medical reasons, such as allergies and autoimmune diseases that make vaccines dangerous, will still be granted.

A good argument could be made that parents should not be allowed to endanger the health of their children by refusing to have them vaccinated. Just as parents are required by law to feed their kids something besides Twinkies and to buckle their seat belts, they could also be required to take the minimum steps to protect them from diseases.

But New York, like all the other states, isn’t going that far. Anti-vaxxers in New York can continue to risk the health and the lives of their own kids for no good reason if they choose.

What they will not be able to do, from now on, is to send their kids to public school, where diseases they may be carrying can be transmitted to other families.

One myth in this myth-heavy field is that anti-vaxxers aren’t putting anyone else — just themselves — at risk. But those folks who for medical reasons cannot get vaccinated will always be at risk of infection. Also, babies who haven’t received all their shots yet are at risk. Vaccinations get spaced out over the first year or two of a child’s life, and it’s easy to see how a baby could be infected in a public place like, for example, a pediatrician’s office.

Keeping unvaccinated kids out of public school doesn’t solve the problem, because children mingle in many public places, and it’s easy for unknowing transmission of childhood diseases to occur. Measles, for example, can live in the air for hours and is highly contagious. Also, it can be spread for days before and after symptoms are obvious.

But it’s very difficult to ban unvaccinated kids, or adults, from the grocery store or movie theater or park. It’s easy for schools to require the submission of vaccination records (they already do), and making vaccines mandatory for schoolkids should persuade most parents to be sensible.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled both that states can require vaccinations of citizens and that school districts can require them of students.

“There are manifold restraints to which each person is necessarily subject for the common good,” wrote Justice John Marshall Harlan on this issue in 1905.

By Patricia Older

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