In a year marked by the introduction of controversial legislation at the State Capitol it is difficult to single out just one for the distinction of most contentious, but if pressed one would have to include the vaccination bill among the top two or three.
It was one of those odd bills which attaches to itself the preternatural ability to unite the most disparate of parties in opposition, in this case your average run-of-the-mill libertarian with the Boulder Luddite-leftist.
The legislation, which ultimately died amid unified Republican opposition buttressed by the skepticism of Gov. Jared Polis, didn’t really promise to do a whole lot — it added some vaccines on the recommended schedule to the list of school-entry shots, and required parents who wished to exempt their children from the vaccination protocol to fill out some additional paperwork — but it aroused a flurry of emotional and philosophical responses, resulting in throngs of anti-vaccination-minded parents descending on the capitol, many with their (presumably unvaccinated) children in tow.
What was the reason for such heated opposition? Much of it centered on entirely understandable concerns of government intrusion into what ought to be personal decisions. If the government can require you to inject yourself or your offspring with a pharmaceutical, the argument went, does it not follow that this is the first step on the slippery slope to totalitarian dominance?
Not in my view. It was Western medicine, under the aegis of economic freedom, after all, which created vaccines in the first place, and ultimately eliminated diseases such as polio and smallpox from the pantheon of human misery. Among the myriad of blessings that capitalism has bestowed upon humanity, better health and elongated life are two.
There were problems with the bill, certainly, as there was with most bills introduced this session (and most sessions, for that matter). I do not think that requiring the flu vaccine (except perhaps for the most vulnerable populations) is necessary or wise, if only because medical experts tell us that the sheer variety of influenza strains floating about makes vaccinating against the right one something of a crap shoot; and requiring the HPV vaccine was unnecessarily provocative — good idea or not, HPV does not constitute a public health danger comparable to measles or tuberculosis, and therefore falls outside the rationale for requirement.
We should concede this: Namely that government’s reach has expanded well beyond the bounds of legitimacy over the course of the last century. The contrapositive to this is not validated, however — that everything within government’s reach is therefore illegitimate. If it is a) a legitimate role of government to provide for the public safety by reasonably preventing reasonably preventable public health catastrophes, then b) the measures to be able to do that should be available providing c) those measures do not constitute cruel or unusual practices.
Some basic considerations need to go into any analysis of whether vaccination requirements are a legitimate function of the state. Illiterate hogwash over the risk of autism is not one and should be summarily discarded into the same bin as chem-trails, minimum wage, and the likelihood of a Bennet presidency. But the risks to public health of resurrection of diseases like smallpox and measles are serious factors to weigh. As is the concept of “herd immunity,” which is necessary to protect that small percentage who legitimately cannot be vaccinated for real health reasons. This is the role of declarative law; the existence of deadly and highly communicable disease is determined to be a threat to the body public, and just as the law protects the public from robbers and murderers, so it protects them from the risk of widespread disease.
It is useful to consider what other mechanisms might be available. In a free society a desired end is often affected by less direct means, generally taxation. One could propose to levy a tax on the parents of unvaccinated children, which would undoubtedly be met with similar outrage, and if a large enough number wish to pay the tax instead of getting the shot, the problem remains.
I submit that Republicans are flirting with shortsightedness on the issue of vaccination. If, in response to the grave and preventable threat posed by polio, measles, or other diseases, the state requires children to receive certain vaccines, what have we lost as a society that seeks both freedom and the advantages of scientific advancement which that freedom provides?
Conservatives should not cede the ground of reality, which is their natural habitat, on this issue any more than with fracking, nuclear power, the efficacy of school choice, or indeed of capitalism and its blessings.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.