COMMENTARY

Do Children Have Vaccination Rights?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Disclosures

October 22, 2018

I'm Art Caplan and I am at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Health Center. [It's around the time when people] are starting to get their kids ready for school or [they've just started the school year]. Many people are thinking about vaccination because that's a part of what happens when children return to school.

The flu season will soon be here, and again, the airwaves will be full of discussions about flu vaccines. We're going to hear from people who are critics and we're going to hear from people who still won't let go of the canard that vaccines cause autism. That can't be true because we're starting to be in a position where we can diagnose autism before the time at which a child receives a vaccine.

Aside from safety complaints and people arguing about the right to not have their child vaccinated, I want to point out a moral stance that I don't think has gotten enough attention, which is that every child has the right to be vaccinated. We keep talking about parents' right to say yes or no, to avoid mandates or requirements, or to do what they choose to do. Children cannot protect themselves against measles or the flu. A child with an immune-compromising disease [cannot be protected] unless other children are vaccinated. Someone has to speak up and say, "Well, what about the kids? Don't they have any rights?"

In many international agreements that the United States has signed, we say that children have the right to healthcare to have their welfare protected. Most religions would certainly argue that it's supremely important to protect the interests and the [health] of children, that someone has to do that, and that these are parental responsibilities.

If the parents won't do it, I think it's the responsibility of the state or the government to do it. When someone comes in and says they don't want their child taken care of by Western medicine, and the child has diabetes or meningitis, we go to court and overrule the parent's refusal because we know that the child has a right to live. Children have a right to have a chance at life like anybody else.

Why not take the same attitude toward vaccination? The presumption should be not listening to what parents who don't want to vaccinate are saying, but starting out with a presumption that kids have a right to fight off deadly diseases, that kids who can't be vaccinated have a right to protection. How do we move public policy forward from there?

It doesn't mean that we have to change the mandates. It doesn't mean that we have to change much of anything. We have to change how we present these issues to the public. We may have to change the conversations that we have with families and even with older children, moving from "It's up to the rights of parents" to "You know, kids have a right to be healthy. Vaccines keep us healthy."

I'm not saying that vaccines are 100% risk free, but the case for using them to keep infants and children healthy is overwhelming. Pediatricians and infectious disease experts know it. Medicine [shows] it. We ought to start our conversations off that way.

Perhaps the best antidote to antivaccination sentiments is to shift that focus. Let's stop talking about the rights of parents. Let's start talking about the rights of kids.

I'm Art Caplan, from the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine.

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