In recent months there has been an ongoing controversy over the measles vaccine and whether it should be legally mandated or not. Public policy on childhood vaccines raises the classic moral conflict between Liberty and Utility. Several other issues contribute to that debate, including: the moral status of children, responsibility of parents, competent research ethics, and role of physicians and other health care professionals in forging public policy.
Vaccines for childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, influenza provide children with the opportunity to avoid contacting these diseases. Over time, with the advancement of Science, the number of childhood immunization possibilities has increased substantially. The most important public policy issues today include which, if any, vaccines should be voluntary (subject to parental consent) or mandatory (subject to local, state, or federal laws). Although I won't cover the following issues in this blog, we might also question how effective the FDA is at regulating vaccine research, the high cost of vaccinations, and who pays that price and why?
In all Liberty-Utility conflicts libertarians side with "liberty," unless the adult chooser is demonstrably incompetent. If an adult is misinformed by third parties, the mantra is always "buyer beware." That means that we all must be wary of both public and private information (and misinformation) filtered though public and private institutions, including the mass media. In parental decisions involving the welfare of children, libertarians tend to defer decision-making to rational/competent parents over the state and/or the medical profession. They also argue that (in general) any reference to "utility" or the "greater good" tends to mask relationships of power that advance the interests government and/or corporations. Worldwide, the pharmaceutical industry is among the the most profitable, and the most politically powerful. Much of it's power can be traced to it's highly effective marketing strategies and it's generous support of pharma-friendly politicians.
Therefore, libertarian-based public policy on vaccines gives parents the right to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children along with the responsibilities that accompany that decision. Some parents will take this responsibility seriously and look into the scientific research that establishes both safety and effectiveness. Other parents will simply believe what the media and/or other sources say. Authorities might include: governmental institutions like the FDA, religious authorities, and health care authorities, especially physicians.
In the case of the ongoing measles epidemic at schools, libertarian parents reserve the right to send their children to whatever schools they choose. That choice would include public or private schools that require vaccinations and those that do not. If you send your kid to a school that does not mandate vaccinations, and if your child contracts the measles, then you alone must pay the price in terms of time, energy, and resources. If you choose to vaccinate your child and he/she suffers from known (or unknown) side-effects you are also responsible. In the final analysis, the free market will determine whether childhood vaccines are worth the cost.
Before the measles vaccine was invented, measles infected entire schools. Many years ago, I missed a week of school with measles and later with chicken pox and got to stay home and watch daytime TV with my mother. Other kids were hospitalized and some students died,, although I didn't know them. I also contracted the flu every year until the flu vaccine was invented. I haven't had the flu in many years, despite the fact that I have contact with about 300 students a year. Both of my children and my grand daughter were vaccinated for a variety of childhood diseases including measles and influenza. No one forced us.