Image by USACE European District
I’ve seen a scary trend popping up lately. It goes something like this:
If a parent doesn’t vaccinate, and their child gets a disease, and passes it on to another child or children who then are hospitalized or die, the parent who didn’t vaccinate should be sued or criminally liable.
If a parent refuses medical treatment for their child (like a vitamin K shot at birth) and that child subsequently get sick/has a condition that possibly could have been treated by that intervention, then they should be held criminally liable/have their children taken away.
Wow. This really, truly is terrifying.
Mommypotamus did a great article addressing the more health/medical side of this issue recently, but I’d like to address the ethical concerns here. There are so many, it’s almost hard to know where to start.
Criminal Liability Over Medical Procedures?
It blows my mind that people would actually, seriously suggest that parents should be held criminally liable for not getting preventative medical treatments. We’re not even talking about situations in which a child is seriously ill and the parents are refusing treatment (I still don’t think it’s right to hold them criminally liable there, because they might be seeking alternative care, it might be against their religion, the treatment offered might have a low success rate and they’d prefer their child to die peacefully — who knows — but I can understand why people would make that argument). We are talking solely about preventative care.
These preventative measures are not without their own risks. I read a piece by a “science writer” the other week who claimed that vaccines don’t come with the risk of death. Total nonsense. Everything comes with the risk of death — walking out your front door, getting a paper cut, getting behind the wheel of car, eating lunch. Everything. Of course vaccines carry the risk of death or serious injury. Many will be “fine” but by no means “all.” Which means, to me, that everyone should have the choice to accept them or not, and the same goes with any other medical treatment.
What this is, is a religion. When interventions are trusted so much that people are talking about forcing people to accept them or face criminal charges, when they shut down the discussion, when they deny rational risks, they are putting faith in them. They are creating a belief system around them instead of treating them as what they are, a piece of medical technology. They can be good or they can be bad, but they are not always good, for all people, all the time. That is religion, not science.
Even the recent “report” by UNICEF (in which they track the conversations of popular anti-vaccine sites in order to figure out how social media is being used against them, so they can try to ‘re-educate’ parents with ‘real’ information) agrees that the refusal to acknowledge risks has played a role in mistrust of medical treatments like vaccines.
There’s all of that — that this proposition is sheer ridiculousness on its face. But there’s more.
Can We Criminally Charge Those Who Spread Illness?
The claim is that we can charge parents if their children get a vaccine-preventable disease and it later kills or seriously injures someone else. For example, if Suzy gets the measles and goes out in public before she knows she has them, and little Nancy, who is 6 months old, catches them and is hospitalized, Suzy’s parents can be criminally charged or sued.
I propose to you a few different scenarios.
A) Little Johnny goes to school, feeling fine. But by the end of the day, he’s not feeling so great, and the next day, he tests positive for strep throat. He was at school while contagious and could have passed it on to his classmates, some of whom may have been immunocompromised, or who may have infant siblings at home. Strep throat can be serious for some and can lead to scarlet fever. But we don’t vaccinate for it, so are Johnny’s parents criminally liable if his classmate little Bobby’s baby sister catches it?
B) Tommy wakes up for school coughing and sneezing and his parents suspect he has bronchitis — again. They can’t take anymore time off work, so they send him to school anyway, knowing that he is contagious. Suppose his classmate who is immunocompromised catches it and is hospitalized. Tommy’s parents knowingly sent him to school sick — are they criminally liable?
C) Jane is vaccinated with varicella vaccine on a Monday afternoon and returns to school on Tuesday as usual. Varicella is a live-virus vaccine. It sheds and 2 classmates catch chicken pox, one of whom has a newborn sibling at home. The newborn is hospitalized with a shingles-like illness. (Yes, this has happened.) Are Jane’s parents criminally liable?
See where I’m going with this? The whole argument is predicated on vaccines being a religion — always good. Nobody would argue that we should charge parents in any of the above scenarios. Why not?
We can’t charge Johnny’s parents because he didn’t know he was sick. They didn’t knowingly expose anyone. It was unfortunate that he was contagious before he showed symptoms and passed on strep throat, but nobody intended to put anyone in harm’s way.
Can we charge Tommy’s parents, though? Plenty of parents send their kids to school with bad colds that could be bronchitis, or which could lead to pneumonia in children with fragile immune systems all the time. This, arguably, is the most dangerous situation out there. When a parent knowingly sends their child to school sick, they are placing all the other kids at risk. The only thing is, we don’t vaccinate for bronchitis, so it gets a free pass, right?
The final scenario is one people like to deny exists, but which does happen. Some vaccines are live-virus and they can shed. Some package inserts even state to avoid those with weak immune systems for up to three weeks post-vaccination. Flu mist is one of those live-virus vaccines and they’re giving that one in schools now!
Legally, it’s considered a weak case when someone may have been harmed through unfortunate inaction (i.e. someone failed to vaccinate); it’s considered a much stronger case if someone was harmed through another’s actions (i.e. vaccinating and shedding). But, vaccines are a religion, so….
The bottom line here is that we don’t charge people for spreading illness at any other time, so we can’t charge people for spreading it just because they chose not to get a vaccine. That elevates vaccines to a level they shouldn’t be at, nearly assumes infallibility, and has a whole bunch of ethical problems.
Can We Hold Parents Responsible For Refusing Treatment?
The other argument is that we can hold parents responsible (think medical negligence) if they refuse a recommended treatment, procedure or test and their child has a negative outcome. I’ve seen this argument made for chemo in cancer patients and most recently, the vitamin K shot.
In Tennessee, 4 babies had late-onset hemorrhagic disease. None had received vitamin K shot. They took this to mean that clearly, lack of a vitamin K shot caused the hemorrhagic disease.
At least they’re right about one thing: vitamin K is necessary for life, and if your levels are too low, it can lead to bleeding disorders.
But they didn’t ask more questions (or at least the article about this story for the public didn’t). What were the moms’ health histories? What about the rest of the families’? Was there a history of bleeding disorders? Had the moms hemorrhaged at birth? If breastfeeding, what were they eating? Did the infants have anything special or unusual going on? They didn’t ask why the infants’ vitamin K levels were so low in the first place. They simply assumed that because the shot is routine and they didn’t have it, that this explained the issue. What if they’re missing something important?
Ask more questions.
Parents are well within their rights to weigh the benefits and risks of any particular medical intervention, and decide if they want to accept it or not. They should research it, they should ask for input from their doctors or other trusted medical professionals. But the ultimate decision rests with them.
Occasionally, no matter what they choose, it will go poorly. These 4 babies did have bleeding issues. They all survived, although three may face some form of mental retardation. The attitude has been “If you could have prevented this, you should have.” No mention of a risk/benefit analysis is made; it’s like people who say that don’t understand that accepting the shot has risks too. Plus, sad as it is, it was four babies out of thousands who do not get a vitamin K shot each year. Regardless, it’s rare.
Can We Hold Parents Responsible When Treatment Goes Wrong?
I hate to even have to go here, but I have to.
What happens when a child has had a vaccine reaction? What happens when a parent has allowed their child to be injected with up to 6 vaccines in one day…and that child has neurological damage or dies? Are they criminally responsible?
It’s unfathomable, really. “Everyone” vaccinates and they’re fine. The parent was simply doing his/her best to follow recommendations…and it went poorly. Why would we blame them?
While I totally agree it is unfair to blame them, I just need to point out the logic here.
First, many vaccine reactions are denied. “That’s just a coincidence. Vaccines don’t cause that.” A parent with a screaming, feverish, vomiting child mere hours after receiving vaccines is told she is crazy and that vaccines had nothing to do with it. Why do we deny that this can happen? It certainly won’t to everyone, but it can and it does. Sometimes. Since people deny that reactions happen, of course there’s no one to blame — “nothing happened.”
(By the way, note to everyone, if you deny that problems exist with your beliefs, worldview, situation, etc. you are not making it look better. That’s unrealistic. There are problems or potential problems with every situation and it’s better to just acknowledge that. People trust a lot more when they hear “Well, these are the bad parts…but I believe in this anyway” than if you deny bad parts exist.)
Second, although the harm came from action — choosing a vaccination — it is the socially accepted choice, so it gets a pass. Some even suggest that a few ‘sacrifices’ are fine, if overall good comes from it. In other words, it’s totally acceptable for children to be harmed or killed by vaccines, so long as nearly everyone accepts them.
That is, again, not science, that is religion.
Don’t tell me “but herd immunity” because that is nonsense. Most adults are not current on their boosters, and were never vaccinated with more than MMR, polio, and DTP, maybe half the population with less than that. We don’t see epidemics of hep B, pneumoccocus, rotavirus, etc. killing people, despite perhaps 30% of the total population being vaccinated.
The problem is, we have this ‘magical’ belief surrounding vaccines. They are always good. They are for everyone. They almost never cause problems. In the one-in-a-million case where they do cause a problem (and it isn’t “coincidence”), that’s acceptable to protect the rest. This is…insane.
Parents Deserve a Choice
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you already know my personal stance on vaccines and the choice we’ve made. But this isn’t about that.
This is about pointing out fallacies in the ridiculous argument that we ought to hold parents criminally liable for not vaccinating. I think if we want to do that, we also need to hold them criminally liable for making others sick in all the other scenarios I proposed, or if their children are harmed by a medical procedure. Either they’re criminally liable for any choice which negatively impacts others, or none of them. We can’t pick and choose.
My vote is for none. It’s silly. We need to back off and realize that every parent is just trying to do their best. Every parent wants to make sure their child is healthy and happy. For some, that means choosing medical interventions. For others, it means avoiding some or all of them. It is an individual choice, period.
That’s how I feel about it. People need honest, accurate education, and they need a choice. Beyond that, it’s no one’s business what one family does or doesn’t do.