The middle of a measles outbreak may not seem like the best time to stand up for the eccentric preferences of the people who caused it. But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is a libertarian, which means he is used to challenging conventional wisdom. His thoughts on mandatory vaccinations, however, only confirm that conventional wisdom is sometimes genuine wisdom.
At a hearing Tuesday, Paul made two points in opposition to requiring measles inoculations for children. The first: “For myself and my children, I believe that the benefits of vaccines greatly outweigh the risks, but I still do not favor giving up on liberty for a false sense of security.”
The second: “There doesn’t seem to be enough evidence” that “parents who refuse to vaccinate their children risk spreading these diseases to the immunocompromised community.”
These were in keeping with his past statements. In 2015, he rejected mandatory vaccinations on the ground that “the state doesn’t own your children” while claiming to have “heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines” — though he later said, somewhat implausibly, that he didn’t mean to suggest vaccines caused the disorders.
All states require children to be vaccinated against various communicable diseases to enroll in public schools. But most let parents refuse if they have religious objections — and some let them decline for any reason. That turns out to be dangerous.
Paul is wrong on the issue of freedom versus public health, as many prominent libertarian thinkers agree. Individuals do have rights, and they include the right to decide what risks to take with their own lives and property. But they aren’t free to subject others to deadly harms.
Before a vaccine was invented, 450 to 500 Americans died each year of measles. By 2000, it had been eradicated in this country. But with the spread of anti-vaccine propaganda and state exemptions, the disease has made a comeback, infecting 159 people this year. Some legislatures are now considering abolishing virtually all exemptions as California, Mississippi and West Virginia have done.
Many so-called public health measures are really about private health — preventing people from harming themselves, say through smoking or drinking sugary soft drinks. Libertarians have good reason to oppose them. But mandatory vaccinations are about protecting people from the dangerous practices of their fellow citizens.
Parents have no right to expose other people — notably those too young or too sick to be inoculated — to a serious contagion by refusing to vaccinate their children. For that matter, they have no right to expose even their own kids to measles. The government doesn’t own them, but it is entitled to intervene to shield them from harm, even at the hands of their parents.
Libertarians look back fondly on the days when government was far less intrusive. But even then, mandatory immunizations were upheld by the Supreme Court.
In 1905, the court ruled in favor of such requirements, reasoning that “in every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”
Critics claim that vaccines are unreasonably dangerous to recipients, causing autism and other ailments. But all the evidence is against them.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says: “Vaccines are safe. Vaccines are effective. Vaccines save lives. Claims that vaccines are linked to autism, or are unsafe when administered according to the recommended schedule, have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature.”
After seeing Paul’s suggestion that unvaccinated kids are no threat to people with weakened immunity, I emailed his office asking for documentation. An aide got back to me but offered no evidence.
But Paul is wrong. Dr. Sean O’Leary, a spokesman for the AAP, told me that measles “is certainly potentially deadly, especially among the immunocompromised, and we now relatively have a much larger group of immunocompromised people in the U.S., thanks to new disease-modifying medications, better cancer treatments, etc. Many of the deaths from varicella (chickenpox) in the U.S. prior to the varicella vaccine were in immunocompromised patients.”
The familiar criticism of libertarians is that they have a selfish obsession with their own rights and no regard for how their exercise of those rights injures others. Paul is not refuting that charge.