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Yes, The U.S. Constitution Allows Compulsory Vaccinations

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Vaccines save lives. Take smallpox, for example. 

Smallpox was a deadly viral disease that marked survivors with scars and disfigurations. Accounts from India and China showed primitive vaccine utilization as early as the 1500s, made from ground smallpox scabs that were inhaled through the nostril. The first modern smallpox vaccine was developed in 1796 by Edward Jenner. In 1813, the U.S. government enacted "An Act to Encourage Vaccination," establishing a National Vaccine Agency.  In 1853, the United Kingdom made smallpox vaccination mandatory. In 1874, the German Empire followed suit (population of 54 million). Then Sweden. And so on. 


By 1949, the last case of smallpox was seen in the United States. Global smallpox eradication was announced in 1980. 

But, it is human nature to oppose. Every masterpiece has a critic, after all. 

Anti-vaccinationists first appeared in the early 1880s. The first batch claimed that the transmission of the virus was false. Religious zealots then claimed that vaccinations were unnatural and an affront to their deity. 1990s hippies spread rumors that vaccinations caused autism. Modern-day anti-vaxxers are socialists who believe something along the lines of evil corporations are selling vaccines for profit and hence the vaccine must be evil. As the ease with which information could spread increased, so too did the paranoia and the conspiracy theories. 

The result? By the new millennium and the lightning speed of conspiracy theory dissemination, children again began dying of diseases which are entirely preventable. In 2018, for example, 41,000 Europeans were infected with measles, with 37 of them died. An elementary school in Oregon currently has toddler vaccination rates lower than those in Venezuela, according to PBS. Over 100 people have contracted measles in the United States this year. 

If children and adults could be saved from disease via vaccination, then can our government impose compulsory vaccination laws to save lives? 


The Supreme Court has unequivocally answered this in the last century: yes. 

In 1904, the Supreme Court heard the case of a Massachusetts anti-vaccinationist. He claimed that his liberty was invaded when the state of Massachusetts subjected him to criminal penalty for refusing to submit to vaccination. He argued that a compulsory vaccination law was unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive, and, therefore, hostile to his inherent right to care for his own body and health in whichever way he felt best; and that the execution of such a law, no matter for what reason, he felt was an assault. The opinion of the Court was handed down in 1905, striking down all of the anti-vaxxer’s arguments. The Constitution of the United States does not guarantee absolute liberty from government intervention, the Court explained, and it does not import an absolute right into each person to be wholly freed from government restraint. 

“There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy. Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”


In a prior decision in 1890, the Supreme Court explained the origin of restricting liberty for health and safety:

“The possession and enjoyment of all rights are subject to such reasonable conditions as may be deemed by the governing authority of the country essential to the safety, health, peace, good order and morals of the community. Even liberty itself, the greatest of all rights, is not unrestricted license to act according to one's own will. It is only freedom from restraint under conditions essential to the equal enjoyment of the same right by others. It is then liberty regulated by law."

In 1922, the Supreme Court again reiterated this stance in the case of a Texas anti-vaxxer, reminding us, “it is within the police power of a State to provide for compulsory vaccination.” 

This year, Congress will consider enacting federal laws to mandate vaccination in the United States. The reason why the federal government is considering intervention is that 17 states have allowed exemption from vaccination requirements based on religious or philosophical beliefs. These states include all six considering infanticide this year: Virginia, New York, Vermont, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. 

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, March 5, beginning at 10 am: “Vaccines Save Lives: What Is Driving Preventable Disease Outbreaks?“ Watch it live here.


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