03 February 2015
Republicans, paranoia and public health
So now there's such a thing as an anti-vaccination constituency, it seems, and some Republicans thinking of running for President are hoping to get its support. Neither Gov. Christie of New Jersey nor Sen. Paul of Kentucky actually objects to vaccination in general, but both made a point recently of suggesting either that vaccinations for schoolchildren should be voluntary or that there should be more input from local parents regarding each school system's vaccination policy. As more Americans become aware of a measles epidemic in this country, it seems a bad time to question in any way the principle of mandatory vaccinations. But even these politicians' mild criticisms of the principle may resonate with Republican base voters, and others, who've been conditioned to oppose the idea that anything having to do with public health should be mandatory, or who object to a supposedly misguided "one size fits all" approach to any regulatory policy. While some of this resistance is plainly reactionary -- note Paul's comment that "the state doesn't own your children" -- not all of it need be. I can imagine relatively apolitical or nonpartisan paranoids drawing the conclusion that mandatory vaccinations only benefit the big pharmaceutical companies while subjecting children to unjustifiable risks. Some side research showed me that arguments of that sort were made a century ago as New York State considered mandatory smallpox vaccination for schoolchildren. This sort of thinking becomes more decisive as the era of annual polio epidemics recedes further into the ill-remembered past. Time makes some people more sensitive to the relative handful of exceptional cases who suffer side effects of vaccinations, as they did 100 years ago, while the far larger numbers of victims of future outbreaks among the unvaccinated remain speculative if not fictional. It is conservative, I suppose, if the risks of action outweigh the risks of inaction for anyone, but it's worth noting that Ben Carson, still touted by some Republicans as their party's great black conservative hope, sees the issue from a doctor's perspective, not an ideologue's. Actually, when he argues against giving up something that has worked over time for "philosophical, religious or other reasons," Carson is a conservative in the best sense of the word.