Parents Should Heed Ben Franklin’s Vaccination Story

Published December 23, 2011

New data indicate increasing conflict between parental rights advocates and vaccination experts. To avoid the return of preventable disease, both sides would be wise to begin a more open and educational dialogue with each other.

According to a study published recently by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a significant number of parents are ignoring the advice of vaccine experts. The study calculated 13 percent of U.S. parents are following an alternative vaccination schedule. This is not just a matter of temporary delays in immunization: 53 percent of these parents refused some vaccines entirely, and 17 percent refused to vaccinate their children at all.

Even among those parents who kept to the recommended vaccine schedule, 28 percent told researchers they believe an alternate schedule that spaces out vaccines is safer.

A new analysis by the Associated Press found this is having a marked effect on young children’s vaccination status. After surveying eight different state elementary school systems, AP found one in every 20 public school kindergarteners did not have the vaccinations required by law to attend school.

Politicians such as presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) have not helped matters. She engaged in severe scaremongering regarding the Gardisil vaccine against the human papillomavirus when she suggested, in claims repeated on national television, that a woman’s child had “suffered mental retardation” as a result of the vaccination.

The failure to vaccinate can have serious consequences. In Europe, preventable diseases have been making a comeback in recent years, with major outbreaks of mumps and measles in the wake of fraudulent reports of connections between vaccines and autism. Here in the U.S., we may be seeing the beginning of the same trend. Last year brought the largest outbreak of whooping cough in a half-century, resulting in the deaths of ten infants.

In refusing to vaccinate because of scare stories, parents are making a foolish choice. But it should be their choice. Parents have the right to opt their children out of vaccinations as they see fit. It is their child, after all, not the government’s.

But when this happens, it must be understood as an act of self-segregation. Parents who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated must understand they are deciding to teach their children at home or in schools that will allow unvaccinated children to enroll. The rest of the community should not have to bear the risk of a rise in preventable disease.

The role of government in the matter should be to ensure people aren’t allowed to impose their choices on others, which means if we’re going to have public schools and children are required to attend, we can’t allow them to admit unvaccinated children.

All parents would do well to consider the words of Benjamin Franklin, who wrote movingly on the topic, from personal experience:

“In 1736, I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox,” Franklin wrote. “I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it, my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

As Franklin acknowledges, the choice here belongs to the parents, and it ought to. But every choice has consequences, and those with knowledge of the risks and rewards must educate and inform parents of what the consequences of refusing vaccination can be for their child and their neighbors’ children as well.

Benjamin Domenech ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News.