The vast majority of medical experts are convinced that measles vaccination is safe. They also believe that, since the disease is extremely contagious, it is crucial that children be vaccinated. And they blame parents who have refused to vaccinate for this year’s outbreak.
Different states have different rules on vaccination. In California, parents can opt out for religious or philosophical reasons. In Mississippi, only medical reasons are allowed. It’s no coincidence, doctors believe, that California has reported more than 90 cases and Mississippi none.
Opponents of mandatory vaccination cite a range of reasons, ranging from a general distrust of conventional medicine to fears about suspected risks. Many Americans on both sides of the debate express concerns about government infringements on individual freedom to make their own health care decisions.
Those who would like to shame anti-vaxxers are in a sense suggesting a return to a penal philosophy that was much more common in the 18th century. Punishments such as the whip or scaffold or pillory inflicted physical pain but they were also very public—and intentionally so.
The Virginia Gazette reported in October 1774, for example, that a man found guilty of forgery would “stand in the pillory one hour.” (The Gazette report added that the perpetrator’s right ear would be cut off and he would also serve a year in prison.)
Perhaps more relevantly, the Virginia Gazette of January 21, 1768 noted efforts to control an outbreak of smallpox: Any inhabitant of Williamsburg who would “entertain or receive into his house any . . . person infected with the smallpox . . . shall forfeit . . . the sum of two pounds.”
Even in colonial Virginia, Americans debated how to enact public policy that struck a fair balance between personal freedom and the equal civic responsibility of all citizens to their communities.
How would you strike that balance today?