The right to swing one’s fist ends at the next person’s nose, and — at least according to California legislators — the right not to get vaccinated ends at a statewide measles outbreak. That’s what lawmakers decided last week when they passed a bill mandating vaccinations for schoolchildren, regardless of personal or religious objections. California’s move to increase vaccination rates is welcome, though it may go slightly too far.
The legislation, which Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed Tuesday, will bring a huge change to the state’s policy, which until now had been one of the more lenient in the nation: California was among 17 states that have allowed broad philosophical objections to vaccines, essentially allowing parents to exempt their children from vaccination for whatever reason they choose. This helps explain the startling rate — nearly 10 percent — of unvaccinated kindergartners in the state.
It also may account for the measles outbreak that infected 131 people in California this year. With the bill’s signing, California will swing in the opposite direction, joining the company of just two other states that refuse to recognize not only personal qualms but also religious ones.
Put simply, vaccines — particularly against highly infectious, dangerous diseases such as measles — save lives. Anti-vaccinators seize on widely discredited studies linking vaccines to autism and other medical maladies. But doctors who support vaccinations point to the real and deadly results of outbreaks that can and have occurred because of under-immunization. Those who refuse vaccinations for their children put at risk those too young or too sick to be vaccinated.
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California’s personal exemption policy allowed immunization rates to dip too low to protect public safety, and legislators were smart to change the rule. But religious exemptions are trickier.
The freedom to exercise one’s religion is a constitutional cornerstone, and any state should protect the rights of those whose religion genuinely conflicts with vaccination to the extent possible without threatening public health. It happens that no such doctrinal conflict exists in any major religion: some sects of smaller religions such as the Dutch Reformed Church appear to prohibit vaccination. On the one hand, this does not make writing an appropriately narrow religious-exemption provision into a law any easier. On the other, it means allowing these exceptions would be unlikely to lead to immunization levels low enough to risk outbreak.
California’s lawmakers have taken a step toward safety and charted a course that other states with similarly lenient policies should follow. But when it comes to religious objections, those states should take care not to stay anyone’s fist until they are sure someone else’s nose is in jeopardy.