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Vaccination and Parental Autonomy

A mother holds her son

Parents of young children are routinely faced with ethical decision making in the course of routine medical care, and the ethics of vaccination are a contentious topic right now. Every major medical organization in the United States recommends the vaccination of children on a set schedule that is regularly reviewed and updated based on ongoing research. There are however many parents who object to vaccinations. The question for every ethically minded parent must be answered in due time: “Should I vaccinate my child?”

There is currently no law that mandates vaccination of any kind, but that doesn’t mean that parental choice is always respected. Each State, for the purposes of public education, sets out guidelines on which vaccinations students enrolled in public schools must have received. In this subtle way parents may be coerced into vaccinating in order to take advantage of the public school system. California, Mississippi, and West Virginia currently have no state-wide exemptions to their vaccination requirements due to religious or personal belief. There’s been a tradition of waivers with which parents can object on religious or personal beliefs, but there’s a movement that believes that these exemptions are abused. Consequently, they’re seeking to end those exceptions. Philosophically and ethically, taking away patents autonomy in making medical decisions for their children is wrong.

While parents may or may not face pushback from school districts, many pediatricians opt not to treat unvaccinated patients. This, too, is wrong. It’s not the role of the physician to mandate and overrule parental autonomy, except in rare life and death situations where the courts have spoken, but rather to advise and assist. The pediatrician may argue that it’s a trust issue, but again, this is an overstep. The parents should simply find another pediatrician that they can work with who is willing to advise and respect their final decisions.

The parent has the ultimate agency on behalf of the child. If the parents decide that a medical course of treatment, vaccination or otherwise, should not be pursued, even in the face of strenuous objection, their autonomy must be respected.