Nobody likes to be told what to do.
We Americans tend to take our freedoms pretty seriously — staunchly defending our ability to choose our own path. After all, wasn’t that the point of listing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as “unalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence? Or all those amendments to the Constitution of the United States we so appropriately call the “Bill of Rights”?
We, the Record-Eagle that is, depend upon many of those freedoms on a daily basis, most obviously the freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom to petition our government. We often find ourselves vigorously defending those freedoms, or shining a spotlight on encroachments on other rights.
But all freedoms have some limit.
Common-sense boundaries were set long ago on fringes where our individual freedoms might bump up against the wellbeing of others. Freedom of speech, for instance, does not include the right to incite violence, or endanger others.
So, in light of a recent resurgence of previously rare illnesses, it seems like some thoughtful curbs on freedoms related to vaccines might be in order.
We know the issue is an individual rights lightning rod.
Our society values independence, especially when we’re talking about child rearing, so the contentiousness around inoculation isn’t surprising. Autonomy to raise our children on a foundation of unique familial values is ingrained in our culture. As is the right to protect our loved ones from danger.
It’s in that clash between autonomy and the wellbeing of others that we find a disagreement between life and liberty. And it makes sense that life wins over liberty when the pair meet.
That’s where we stand today in the debate over vaccinations.
Those relatively few pricks of a needle when we’re young, and a few later in life eradicated polio, practically drove measles out of our country and tamped down potential influenza pandemics.
But misinformation running amok, and an accompanying public health crisis brought life and liberty to collision.
In recent years, public health officials have sounded alarm bells over high rates of unvaccinated children and adults in our country as concerns over vaccine safety were amplified through social media platforms. In fact, medical experts track the expansion of the modern anti-vaccination movement to a single 1998 article published in the medical journal “Lancet.” That article, written by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and other colleagues, claimed a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in eight patients.
There was one little problem, though.
Twelve years later the medical journal was forced to retract the article and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license after regulators discovered the study relied on falsified data and was tied to unethical financial incentives.
Since then, more than 20 studies have found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, including one in Denmark that followed more than 600,000 children for more than a decade.
The problem here isn’t the questioning of modern scientific practices. We have plenty of reason to approach breakthroughs with skepticism — think leaded fuel, sure it stopped engines from knocking, but it also had disastrous impacts on our environment.
Today, we live in a world where information and disinformation flow freely and die hard. It’s perfectly understandable that thoughtful, educated parents who want what’s best for their children could be swayed by pundits who cite a study once published in a reputable medical journal.
But the end result of that could have deadly impact on those who can’t be inoculated because of medical conditions. Many schools in and child care programs in Michigan report vaccination rates below the level needed for community immunity. That means, enough people have opted out of vaccination to allow previously rare diseases to gain a foothold and spread rapidly. Public health officials worry we may have hit a tipping point in some places where low vaccination rates would make it near impossible to stop the spread of an illness like measles. Vaccine critics often cite statistics that show prior to vaccines, relatively few — 450 to 500 — people in the U.S. died of measles each year.
Probably a more relevant example would be the influenza pandemic of 1918. Today, the flu vaccine is generally effective and prolific. But 100 years ago it wasn’t. A quick peek at death records from 1918 and 1919 show children and young adults died of a now preventable disease in droves. Worldwide, 500 million people were infected and 50 million were killed during the pandemic.
Vaccines are not infallible, but they are a tool of modern science that save lives.
There certainly should be exceptions to vaccination requirements that allow for personal liberty in addition to medical and religious objections. But those liberties shouldn’t supersede others’ right to life.
Michigan lawmakers have not managed that hierarchy well, but we hope they will recognize their missteps before its too late.
Our liberties should not come at the cost of others’ lives.
— TRAVERSE CITY RECORD-EAGLE