Classical Liberalism and Civic Republicanism in the Time of Anti-Vaccinationism

In the summer of 1764, Ethan Allen and Dr. Thomas Young performed a revolutionary act in the center of Salisbury, Connecticut [1]. Allen had volunteered himself for a primitive form of inoculation against smallpox and the two of them made a public demonstration in front of the Salisbury meetinghouse. Many religious conservatives complained about and opposed the practice of inoculation as being against the will of God. Whether a community would allow inoculation generally rested with a board of three or five men. Due to the understanding of disease at the time, the controlling of inoculation was a matter of public health. Inoculation was expensive for a community and if not enough people were inoculated, the possibility of an oftentimes lethal disease like smallpox spreading was a great concern. Yet medical revolutionaries like Allen and Young, as well as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, would become inoculated whether the community allowed them to or not.

In our current time, a medical crisis has emerged regarding vaccines. Concerned about the scientific legitimacy of vaccinations and the possibility of harm to themselves or their children, many people in the United States are refusing to vaccinate themselves or their children. Some cite religious beliefs. Others believe the science is lacking or false. Actress Jenny McCarthy claims vaccines made her child autistic [2]. She is not alone in linking autism and vaccines in spite of well-documented evidence indicating no such link [3].

Where’s the harm in all this? Recent events, such as a woman exposing children to measles in a Phoenix hospital, show the danger unvaccinated people pose to the safety of the community’s health [4]. The severity of the growing anti-vaccination movement has convinced California to consider removing all exemptions save medical ones for vaccines due to measles outbreaks in that state [5]. Whereas in the days of Allen and Young, the community attempted to prevent inoculation, today the community encourages vaccination. Notably, we have a better understanding of how immunity works and safer means of creating immunity and resistance to diseases. Yet some refuse to accept the scientific community’s understanding of disease and the benefit of vaccinations.

Who are these people? In a 2011 issue of Mother Jones, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, discussed how the revelation of “Climategate”, an alleged scandal about climate science, impacted certain groups of Americans [6]. He found “these declines were concentrated among particular groups of Americans: Republicans, conservatives, and those with “individualistic” values. Liberals and those with “egalitarian” values didn’t lose much trust in climate science or scientists at all.” The article continues, “Science denial today is considerably more prominent on the political right—once you survey climate and related environmental issues, anti-evolutionism, attacks on reproductive health science by the Christian right, and stem-cell and biomedical matters. More tellingly, anti-vaccine positions are virtually nonexistent among Democratic officeholders today—whereas anti-climate-science views are becoming monolithic among Republican elected officials.” Curiously, the article ends with the following, “Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a “culture war of fact.” In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.” This quotation might provide the strategy of convincing anti-vaccinationists to change their views.

In terms of what we have been discussing in class, the debate around vaccines centers on the needs of the community vs. the beliefs of the individuals who compose it. From the sources discussed previously, those who are more individualistic tend to favor the right of a person to choose whether they or their children are vaccinated, whereas the more communitarian minded people are likely to encourage vaccination. Yet the individualistic people who choose not to vaccinate put the community at risk of exposure to harmful diseases that may end up killing them, their children, or others in the community. The only conclusion we should hope to reach is that the prevention of disease is in the best interest of the community and the individual. Vaccines are the best means of accomplishing this prevention for many dangerous diseases. Therefore, if it is medically possible for us, we should all be vaccinated.

[1] Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God, 39-41.






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1 Response to Classical Liberalism and Civic Republicanism in the Time of Anti-Vaccinationism

  1. fern1007 says:

    This is such a well written post! It can be difficult to have a discussion on vaccinations, because people at odds with each other often feel very emotional about the issue.
    How could a mother or father not vaccinate their own child? HOW?!?
    But then I have to ask myself, can the government compel a parent inject something into the parent’s child even if the parent objects…?
    I’m going to go out on a well vaccinated limb here for a moment and say, “no.”
    So how then can the community at large protect those who cannot be vaccinated due to health issues safe from kids with dumb parents? (The CDC lists who is not a good candidate for different vaccinations
    I think there is a compelling argument that a public school has the right to refuse any child who has not been vaccinated.
    But what about outside of school? What about a parent taking their vulnerable child with them to the market, or a park? The answer is…
    I don’t have an answer. I honestly don’t know, and it makes me crazy. My instinct is to usually side with the individual rather than the collective, but I am not a parent. I have such limited knowledge of the anger/frustration parents who vaccinate their children or parents of children who cannot be vaccinated for legit medical reasons feel towards Jenny McCarthy and her ilk.
    I only know my anger/frustration with McCarthy is only a fraction compared.
    This might be the one issue I lean towards the collective on, and by collective, I mean government force. So now I’m going to go back out on that well vaccinated limb and say “Yes” the government can compel parents to vaccinate their children… (Don’t tell my libertarian friends, because they will revoke my libertarian card.)

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