The public conversation over vaccine safety has grown heated in 2019. The World Health Organization set the tone for the year by declaring vaccine hesitancy one of the top health threats across the globe, and the debate has continued in that vein. Medical professionals and government administrators have expressed concern over an increased number of measles cases, and vaccine skepticism is being wiped off social media and bookshelves as “fake news.”
Several regions across the United States have renewed attempts to pressure families into immunizing their children, most recently in New York City. Authorities responded to an ongoing measles outbreak in Brooklyn by declaring a public health emergency and making the inoculation mandatory in affected areas. But is this a reasonable solution, or an example of gross government overstep? An anonymous group of five families has sued Oxiris Barbot, the commissioner of New York’s Office of Health and Mental Hygiene, claiming that the measure is unconstitutional. The lawsuit was quickly dismissed by a judge, but it brings up the question: Does the government have the right to force anybody to undertake an unwanted medical procedure, particularly if it violates religious convictions?
State of Emergency
According to New York health authorities, around 423 measles cases have been reported in Queens and Brooklyn since October, with the outbreak thought to have been caused by an unvaccinated child who caught the virus on a visit to Israel. The area of Williamsburg has been particularly affected, as it has a large Orthodox Jewish community, with a higher than average number of religious exemptions from inoculation.
The order mandates that unvaccinated people (or their parents/guardians in the case of children) who reside, work, or attend school in four Williamsburg Zip codes will be issued violations and fines of $1,000, unless they submit to immunization, demonstrate existing immunity, or gain exemption on medical grounds. Unvaccinated children also will be barred from attending school or daycare, and institutions that do not “actively participate” with the order may be faced with closure until the measles outbreak has passed. “The only way to stop this outbreak is to ensure that those who have not been vaccinated get the vaccine. It’s crucial for people to understand the measles vaccine works. It is safe; it is effective; it is time tested,” said the mayor.
Health commissioner Barbot, who issued the emergency order, said:
“Taking this action is necessary to protect public health during this outbreak. People in violation of the order will be identified through investigations of exposures. Our disease detectives will check for vaccination status or immunity when tracing the contacts of a person who have developed the illness.”
Summonses have reportedly been issued to 57 people for failure to be vaccinated, three people have been fined according to ABC News, and seven schools have been closed for failing to supply vaccination and attendance records – although five have already been reopened.
Only three states require medical reasons to grant a vaccine exemption; most states offer religious exemptions, and a few also offer philosophical exemptions, according to the National Vaccine Information Center, an organization that promotes the idea of informed consent. Currently, New York State offers exemptions in the case of medical or religious objections – except in the area affected by the emergency order. State Gov. Andrew Cuomo questioned the right of the government to impose such an order.
“Look, it’s a serious public health concern, but it’s also a serious First Amendment issue, and it is going to be a constitutional, legal question,” he said during an interview with WAMC radio. “Do we have the right — does society, government have the right to say ‘you must vaccinate your child because I’m afraid your child is going to infect my child, even if you don’t want it done and even if it violates your religious beliefs?’ So that is, that’s an issue that’s going to be legally questionable, and I’m sure it’s going to go down that path.”
Cuomo was correct, because shortly thereafter a complaint was filed about the emergency measures in the Kings County Supreme Court by families who don’t want their children vaccinated on religious or philosophical grounds. The lawsuit claims that the criminal and civil penalties imposed by de Blasio’s order are excessive, and that less stringent measures, such as quarantine and isolation, should have been put in place first:
“Parents, whose religious beliefs are being disregarded, risk becoming criminals if they simply do nothing … apart from the overreach of the emergency Orders’ dictates, the respondents’ [government] approach to the outbreak has been and continues to be irrational … the emergency Orders are disproportionate to the provable factual circumstances and fail to use the least restrictive means that would likely control measles yet balance the rights to individual autonomy, informed consent, and free exercise of religion.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Krakow told the New York Law Journal, “Our case is not about whether vaccines are good or bad. It’s about whether the city and health department overreached issuing a mandate order that, if they wished to, could force people to have vaccines.” He continued, “That’s compulsion, and that’s equivalent to force. The city should not be doing that.”
The lawsuit was dismissed by New York City Judge Lawrence Knipel, who ruled, “The unvarnished truth is that these diagnoses represent the most significant spike in incidences of measles in the United States in many years and that the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn is at its epicenter .… A fireman need not obtain the informed consent of the owner before extinguishing a house fire. Vaccination is known to extinguish the fire of contagion.”
New York is not the only region to respond to recent measles outbreaks by cracking down on “anti-vaxxers.” Earlier this year, Washington State declared a health emergency, and lawmakers promptly introduced multiple bills to restrict exemptions on philosophical grounds, although they did not touch religious freedoms.
Vaccines are a highly emotional issue; both sides think they are helping to prevent children from needlessly suffering and even dying. With the medical establishment, government power, and major information distributors all firmly backing vaccination as a key to maintaining public health, the right to maintain control over our own bodies may soon be a thing of the past.
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