For some people, their religious beliefs are more important than proper medical care their children; something I have written about before. One area where religion has continually trumped children’s welfare has been in exemptions from vaccinations.
In Canada, most children receive the requisite vaccines. In Ontario, for example, approximately 98% of those entering school are fully vaccinated. Of the other 2%, about ½ receive medical exemptions and the other 1% miss out due to parental philosophical or religious objections. Numbers are not so readily available for the rest of Canada, but we do know that an increase in whooping cough, directly attributable to a decrease in vaccination rates, has been seen in a number of areas across the country.
The anti-vaccination propaganda has had much more of an impact in the US, where the number of parents opting out for religious or philosophical reasons is increasing. In Ohio, however, the US District Court has recognized that refusing vaccinations can be considered to be withholding medical treatment, and that courts can deny religious exemptions.
The US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio has ruled (pdf) last week that a parent’s refusal to vaccinate her children against diseases is not a “free exercise” of religion, and is tantamount to neglect….
In its decision, the District Court found that “the mere assertion of a religious belief . . . does not automatically trigger First Amendment protections.” The court also stated that, “it has long been recognized that local authorities may constitutionally mandate vaccinations. Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) (affirming guilty judgment in prosecution under state compulsory vaccination law, noting that “[r]eal liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own … regardless of the injury that may be done to others”).”
The court also cited Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), stating that, “The right to practice religion freely does not include parental liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease.”
I know that this is an American court, and not directly applicable to Canada. The decision is still important here, however, for two reasons. First of all, despite the increased difficulty in traversing the US Canadian border, diseases are not stopped by strip searches. Secondly, attitudes and arguments also cross borders easily. Back in 1997, the imaginary vaccine/autism link began in the UK with Andrew Wakefield, and spread quickly to the US. This Ohio decision emphasizes that the protection of our children cannot be negated by religious beliefs.
As I mentioned above, most of us are eager to see the state override parental wishes in order to actively provide medical treatment to children. Vaccinations are no different, and there should be no opt-out for anything other than sound medical reasons.