Bioethicist says parents who don't vaccinate should face liability for consequences

Here and Now

A woman receives a rubella vaccination, in Brazil in August 2008. (Photo by Sandra Rugio via Wikimedia Commons.)

A measles outbreak in New York City has prompted bioethicist Art Caplan to wonder whether parents should face consequences for choosing not to vaccinate their children.

He argues parents should have the right to not vaccinate, but they should also expect to be sued if their child gets someone else sick.

He said as much in a post on Harvard Law School’s Bill of Health blog.

"If your kid gets the measles, and remember public health officials are getting very very good at tracing outbreaks to their source, and makes my kid sick (can happen since vaccine is not 100 percent effective), my newborn baby die (newborns can’t benefit from vaccines) or my wife miscarry (fetuses are at especially high risk), then shouldn’t I be able to sue you for the harm you have done?"

Caplan says providing a legal avenue to hold an unvaccinated person accountable for sickening someone serves two goals.

First, it provides a measure of justice for a family that is affected by an unvaccinated person’s choice. Second, the possibility of a lawsuit may encourage individuals to get vaccinated.

Ultimately, Caplan said, this is a question about balancing individual choice with responsibility to the community.

While Caplan concedes that 100 percent compliance is impossible, he said, “to protect the population, we don’t need 100 percent, we just need 90 percent.”

"Newborn babies can't be vaccinated against anything. They don't build immunity right at birth. If you give that baby the measles or other infectious diseases, you can really harm that child," he said. "There, I think you have a case to say, hey, wait a minute, before you run around unvaccinated, you ought to beware that you could be held accountable for what harm you do."

But, more broadly, Caplan wants parents to have more information before they choose not to vaccinate. Specifically, he wants them to consider all the consequences of their actions.

"Both goals are important, and both can be served, if we start to take seriously responsibility for one's choice," he said.