Should We Prosecute Parents Who Refuse Medical Intervention? |

Should We Prosecute Parents Who Refuse Medical Intervention?

admin September 3, 2013



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.

Do you think parents should be held criminally liable for refusing medical intervention?

This is the writings of:

  1. Great article! I do agree with you 100%, however, in our family we have a problem. We live in West Virginia, where you are basically not allowed to opt out of vaccines (there are no religious exemptions here, there are only a couple of states like this). You can supposedly get a medical exemption, but doctors, obviously don’t give those out. Our oldest is 9, and I was not educated about the subject and he got all of the shots (although back then it was about half of what they make you do now in this state). Our youngest is 2 1/2, and has yet to get shots. I have been dodging the doctors for quite a while on it, but they are relentless, and soon I will have no choice but to do shots (although we will be bypassing several shots and extra dosages because of his age). I work full-time, and homeschooling is not an option for us. Our oldest attends a private christian school, which is where our youngest will go as well. Does anyone have any thoughts or ideas for us? At this point, I feel that I’ve done what I can, and I just pray that God will handle the rest.


  2. Love this. Right on as always Kate! Thanks for posting!


  3. This issue is part of a larger issue of parents knowing what is best for their children and having the right to make decisions for them. Your readers may, or may not, be aware that parental rights are eroding away in the U.S. The organization is working hard to preserve the right of parents to direct the care of their children. Anyone interested in finding out how to help keep our rights to raise our children as we see fit can check out the website. Also, I’d urge you to pray for efforts of


  4. I too have a fear of this given our birth/vaccination/education beliefs. We have since moved to a less “understanding” state. I am again pregnant planning a homebirth once more. This time in a state where midwives are illegal.


  5. This is a very insightful post. The root of the problem goes deeper than just medical issues though. It is the result of the state believing that they own our children. This mentality affects every area of life including medical treatment, education, and even how we feed our kids today. The state acts as though it is the giver of all rights. However, this country was founded on the idea that there are certain rights that are inalienable, that is God given, and cannot be taken away.


  6. I think you have some interesting points and opinions. However, a vaccine cannot be considered a religion. Really.

    A religion is a set of beliefs and rituals that normally include worship of a supernatural deity and a moral code pertaining to the way humans should behave and make decisions. If that is your definition of vaccination I would hazard to guess that you have been misinformed.

    If you suggested that science, as a broader term, is merely the latest conceptual idea of how the world works, then fair enough. In that way you could argue that science is merely a theory that has been developed to explain the universe and our existence, as religious explanations were widely regarded to be fact before science came along.

    All medicine has risks but the majority of the time the benefits outweigh these risks. Most parents are not doctors. You could read hundreds of articles from all different viewpoints about these health issues but that is not comparable to years of medical training. And the reason why most people turn to medical professionals is because most of the time they know best. If it didn’t we would all still be taking cocaine for toothaches and using hot irons to treat haemorrhoids.

    I think that in some cases parents should be held responsible for putting their own and other children’s health in jeopardy. For instance, if they refuse life-saving (whether preventative or not) treatment for their child. Or if they ignore the express advice of their doctor by putting their child in school when there is a risk of spreading a potentially dangerous illness. In some countries is is now illegal to knowingly put someone at risk of contracting HIV without their knowledge, and HIV is not a death sentence anymore. I don’t think other serious illnesses should be treated differently.

    I do not, however, think that someone’s child should be removed from their custody because they sent them to play group with a common cold. Let’s say that the parents of a child sent said child to school after a live-vaccination against the advice of their doctor and an immunocompromised child became seriously ill as a result. A more suitable outcome would be to appoint a doctor as a medical guardian who would oversee the child’s medical treatment for a set period of time decided by a well informed judge.

    To suggest that during legal proceedings not all factors would be taken into consideration when possibly prosecuting someone is, in my humble opinion, ludicrous. If there was a trial in court all of these factors would be heard; mother’s previous medical history, reasons behind the decision, etc.

    I have many massive issues with religion in general, which I won’t bore anyone with here, so I find it extremely difficult to empathise with a parent who would let their child become seriously ill or die because to intervene would be against their personal religious beliefs. I just cannot wrap my head around that. Yes parents deserve a choice, but making the decision for your child to be statistically more likely to lead a normal, happy, healthy life, is surly the right choice every time.

    I strongly believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and religion is just that, opinion. It is not fact. But maybe that’s just my opinion.


  7. This was a great post and I agree. I also agree with Heather, who highlights that this issue is part of a broader and deeper issue. I would like to add that this issue, as well as many others, are rooted in power and control that “those in charge” strive for, usually for their own (selfish) reasons, thereby having no true care/concern for the effect on others.

    It is also part of our society’s emphasis on judging others for their choices, no matter the choice they’ve made. In this judging people can place others in a box, of their choosing, in order to determine how they’ll operate against them.

    I know this isn’t true for all other people, though I do very much recognize it’s true for many people as well as society as a whole.


  8. I love the way you compared vaccines to religion there. It’s a very good point. And really, so many people do view doctors and medicine in general as infallible. (My own husband came close to almost losing his life due to blind faith in his doctor. They do make mistakes!)

    I do tend to disagree when it comes to parents choosing prayer over modern medicine. It is one thing to actively seem natural or holistic treatments, but quite another to do nothing other than pray, especially when denying non-invasive treatments with high success rates. I do realize it’s a slippery slope but when these parents believe their kids are simply going on to a better place, it becomes very dangerous.


  9. It’s truly frightening where the legal system is going with the vaccine and medical issues. I agree with Khaleelah.


  10. I personally believe that if the doctor or staff has in ANY way attempted to convince/badger/blackmail/harass a parent to vaccinate then they should be held entirely liable for ANY negative outcomes from fever to death. Vaccination along with any other medical treatment should be presented with both positive AND negative possibilities and parents/adult patients should then be responsible for their decision.

    Birth is a huge one for me. Big enough that until I found an illegal midwife duo I was prepared to birth with only my husband and doula (not a midwife, strictly support) present. Women are lied to and manipulated horribly during birth and its all for the benefit of the doctors and insurance.

    Finally, on the ‘why do we send our children to school sick?’ note. Companies nowadays do not care if your child is sick, generally they don’t care if you are sick either. Since probably a majority of families have both parents working there is no one to care for the children. If we want that to change it needs to start with more parents staying home and more workplaces allowing/encouraging sick leave. You are sick, please do not come in here and give it to everyone else.

    All that said I do not believe that parents should be allowed to refuse certain treatments in a life or death EMERGENCY such as a blood transfusion based on religion. Its not fair to let a child die based on their parents religion. If however it is NOT an emergency and the parents can present reasoning why they are refusing treatment (alternative treatment, allowing the child to pass peacefully) then I can get behind that.


  11. Whether or not I choose to vaccinate my child to prevent illnesses, or whether I take my child to the allopathic doctor, the naturopathic doctor, or just treat them with good old home medicine and love is not the business of anyone else, not the nosy neighbor, not another parent, and not any government or school. And nobody should be able to successfully sue another for passing a germ. Germs are a way of life.


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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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