Vaccines: An Issue of Personal Freedom, or Community Safety?

by D.Ret on April 2, 2015 - 4:40pm

There has been a growing movement recently that believes that vaccines should not be mandatory, that they should be able to refuse vaccines for personal or religious reasons. In the media this is generally represented as a matter of freedom, they argue that they should be free to refuse to vaccinate their child. They argue that vaccines may be dangerous and as such they should be able to avoid them. Portraying vaccines as possibly dangerous, and as a personal choice, is extremely irresponsible. I would argue that it is unethical to frame the vaccine debate as an issue of personal freedom. The issue is not one of freedom, but of personal as well as community safety. Not vaccinating kids is dangerous, and from a utilitarian perspective it is unacceptable to risk kids getting deadly diseases.  Before continuing in the debate however, I would like to discuss a few myths related to vaccines, as it is impossible to argue that the media shouldn’t portray vaccines negatively without showing first that they are in fact a very positive thing.

One of the most common myths shared by the media related to vaccines is that they cause autism. There was in fact a study, conducted in 1997, by british surgeon Andrew Wakefield that supported this claim (PublicHealth). The experiment has since been discredited “due to serious procedural errors, undisclosed financial conflicts of interest, and ethical violations” (PublicHealth). Additionally, Wakefield lost his medical license for his role in the study (PublicHealth). There is no reason to believe that vaccines cause autism. There are also people who go on the news and say that vaccines are dangerous as they have certain chemicals in them such as mercury or aluminium. Vaccines are extensively tested before use, the process takes ten or more years, any possible dangers from these chemicals would have been detected then (CDC). While the chemicals themselves may be dangerous, the quantities contained are too small to cause any serious lasting damage. Due to the fact that vaccines can prevent deadly diseases and lack any significant dangers, they clearly have a net positive effect when taken.

Now, onto the way the media portrays the issue. Certain media outlets seem convinced that vaccines’ negative side effects outweigh their positive benefits. Negative side effects that, as previously discussed, are more or less unfounded. Now, vaccines are an amazing thing. They grant a person immunity to a disease for years if not the person’s entire life. I have heard them referred to as the most important medical breakthrough of all time. Every time someone asks the questions “Do vaccines cause autism?” or “Are vaccines dangerous?” they encourage people to question the efficacy of these unquestionably effective prophylactics. This stance of questioning scientific discoveries is extremely troubling. Stating that the scientific community has never made a mistake would be wrong, but as a general rule science has done an excellent job of improving our quality and quantity of life. Fostering distrust of the scientific community is ethically wrong as it causes people to make poor decisions in the long run. For example part of the reason global warming isn’t taking seriously, even though it is widely accepted as an issue among the scientific community, is that people don’t fully trust scientists. By making scientists sound like they can’t agree on anything, the media encourages people to ignore them. There are also people who say that being fat is natural and not unhealthy, ignoring mountains of evidence to the contrary. Overall, fostering distrust of the scientific community is a very dangerous thing as it encourages people into ultimately self-destructive behaviours.

In addition to the general fostering of distrust in the scientific community, the media also paints the issue as one of personal freedom. Now, personal freedom is an excellent thing that is vital in any democratic society. That being said, there is a long, and very reasonable, tradition of limiting freedoms for the safety of others. For example, not everyone is allowed to purchase and own a firearm. Not everyone can buy radioactive materials. Not everyone can buy biohazardous materials either. The point I’m trying to make is that we have already established we are okay with limited freedoms if it means we are less likely to be shot by a psychopath.Not vaccinating your children is extremely dangerous for them. Many of the diseases vaccines protect against are quite deadly, unlike the vaccines themselves. By portraying it as a matter of freedom the media neglects the aspect of safety. Regardless of the parent’s views, it is better for the kids to have the protection from the disease. This also has the benefit of protecting kids who are incapable of having vaccines due to allergies or whose immune systems are not functioning properly. We don’t let our children carry guns to school, why should we let them carry deadly diseases? By framing it as an issue of freedom, the media ignores the fact that they do save lives, and not getting vaccinated endangers not only oneself, but those around you.

Overall it is fairly clear that vaccines are a positive force in the world. By portraying them as ineffective or dangerous, and as an issue of choice the media is encouraging people to disregard years of research. This is an unethical way to portray them as it encourages people to make decisions that put not just their own children but others in danger as well. As essential as freedom of choice is, it is much more important to keep people safe from deadly diseases such as the measles. While I support the media’s right to freedom of speech they are abusing it when they imply that vaccines are dangerous. It is unethical to mislead the public, especially when doing so may make them make life-threatening decisions. While there are many sources in the media that are willing to give vaccines the respect they deserve, those that don’t are not just unethical, they are dangerous.

Works cited:

  1. "Frequently Asked Questions About Vaccine Safety." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 08 Feb. 2011. Web. 02 Apr. 2015.

  2. "Vaccine Myths Debunked -" N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2015.