Vaccination lies at a normally quiet but tricky intersection between science, public policy, and law. The leading anti-vaccine activist, British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield, sued the British Medical Journal last year after the BMJ retracted a 1998 paper Dr. Wakefield authored in the publication. The suit was dismissed last August.
In recent days, two news stories highlight ongoing controversy. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., lawyer and environmentalist, is an adherent of the view that the U.S. government is covering up a connection between the preservative thimerosal found in many vaccines and autism. He wrote a piece in Salon to that effect which Salon has subsequently retracted. Last week Kennedy gave a keynote address at a conference on autism in which he is reported to have likened childhood autism to Nazi death camps and said about the leading proponents of vaccination, "Is it hyperbole to say they should be in jail? They should be in jail and the key should be thrown away."
On the heels of that story comes this -- a feature story from NPR's Here and Now asking "Should Parents Be Liable If Unvaccinated Children Sicken Others?," referencing Harvard Law ethicist Art Caplan's argument:
If you know the dangers of measles or for that matter whooping cough or mumps, and you still choose to put others at risk should you be exempt from the consequences of that choice? I can choose to drink but if I run you over it is my responsibility. I can choose not to shovel the snow from my walk but if you fall I pay. Why should failing to vaccinate your children or yourself be any different?
Whichever way you look, there's a legal issue in sight.