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Vaccinations

Why Anti-Vaccination Movements Can Never Be Tamed by Elizabeth Yale.

In Victorian England, nearly a century after the physician Edward Jenner had shown that exposure to the cowpox virus, or vaccinia, conferred immunity to smallpox, vaccination against smallpox was both a life-saving public health measure and a source of immense controversy. Vaccination was compulsory; parents were required to have their children immunized by three months of age or face fines that escalated as long as they refused to do so. Parents organized against the requirement, forming anti-vaccinationist societies, the largest of which was the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League, to promote their cause. They founded their own newspapers, circulating tales of sickened and disfigured children injured by vaccination, complete with shocking photographs, through the national media. Protestors organized mass demonstrations and challenged the law in the courts, banding together to pay the fines and court costs of parents who could not afford them. Without such helps, a family’s goods could be auctioned off and parents jailed until debts were paid—the consequences of opposition were not minor.

In many ways, the history of compulsory smallpox vaccination echoes present-day vaccination controversies. Then, as now, the vaccination debate raised vital questions: what are the limits to the claims a state, acting in the name of the public good, can make on an individual and his or her body? When are individuals justified in resisting these claims, and what intellectual, spiritual, and moral resources can a person draw on in support of his or her resistance? What, ultimately, should be the role of science and medicine in a free society?

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