Bioethics Blogs

Measles Outbreak: A Public Price for the Preeminence of Autonomy?

By Ken Ochs

The recent measles outbreak has led to policy discussions among 2016 presidential hopefuls, a systematic mobilization of public health groups to combat the surging number of cases, and the near-inevitability that tougher laws on vaccinations will soon be debated and subsequently passed in legislatures across the country.

Historically, states have dealt with the issue in remarkably different ways, with very little in common aside from their tolerance for exemptions for medical reasons. California, the source of the current outbreak, allows for “religious” and “philosophical” exemptions—the types of dispensations that would be targeted by new regulations.

It would be far too simplistic to reduce the prospect of more stringent laws to a series of false contradictions between personal freedom and the public good. Nonetheless, these two concepts are at the heart of a much deeper ethics issue: the consequences of forced vaccinations on the principles of biomedical ethics. In other words, patients will have less input in their own healthcare as a direct result of new guidelines. Can it be ethically justified?

Since two doses of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine are typically given between the ages of one and twelve years old (standard practice involves the first injection occurring before the child’s second birthday, and the second before enrollment in kindergarten) there are special considerations on autonomy and informed consent as this type of medical intervention involves children.

It can be reasonably asserted that establishing a timeframe for the course of treatment—as well as consenting—is typically between a parent and her child’s physician.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.