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Vaccine refusers, and sympathizers, need to remember government’s role

I recently received a notice from my children’s school informing me of a change to the rules on how Michigan will be processing “non-medical waivers for immunizations” for school programs.

I was alerted to the notice by buzz on the internet among some of my Catholic, conservative and natural-food fellow travelers. The notice informs parents that Michigan’s liberal vaccine waiver law remains in place. It does, however, establish a new process for obtaining such waivers. Whereas in the past parents requesting a non-medical waiver could file them directly with the school – and even cross out parts of the form – they now must first contact their county health department to set up an appointment with a medical educator to discuss vaccines. After the meeting, parents can still obtain the waiver.

The new Michigan rule for waivers undoubtedly stems in large part from the fact that Michigan has, according to the Grand Rapids Press “the fourth-highest vaccine waiver rate in the country for kindergarteners.” It also comes as sicknesses such as measles and whooping cough, which were once considered eliminated in the United States, have cropped up again, here in Michigan and around the country.

The reaction from some bloggers has been strong and furious. One wrote that with the rule change, “freedoms have been tightened, perhaps even violated.” Another believes the change is an example of the state attempting to “strip us of our parental rights once again, instead of letting us choose what is best for our families.”

Let me first state that I am broadly sympathetic to those who have reacted with vehemence against this new requirement. I have an expansive view of parental rights (and duties). We overmedicate as a society. I try to avoid as much as possible chemicals and additives in my food. Beyond my conviction that artificial contraceptives are morally problematic, I think natural family planning rather than artificial contraceptives is the sane way to regulate child birth. I am baffled by people who want their beef organic but have no trouble ingesting or injecting themselves with artificial hormones to prevent their bodies’ natural functions. To read the CDC’s list of what vaccines contain is, to put it mildly, unsettling.

But – and you knew there was one coming – I also find myself unsettled by the view of government that seems embedded in the reaction against Michigan’s new vaccine waiver requirements. It points to a failure of imagination on the part of conservatives and Catholics. As the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has written, “Government is not only natural to the human condition, but an expression of those extended loyalties over time, which bind generation to generation in a relation of mutual commitment.”

Catholics unequivocally do not believe government is a necessary evil. Rather they believe every “human community needs an authority to govern it” and that government exists “to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.” Certainly, to be legitimate government must aim at the good. But assuming such legitimacy, in order to move society towards that good, government must coordinate our diverse and varied society.

In my mind, the new vaccine requirement is an action that follows from a government’s necessary coordinating function. While many parents are well-informed about vaccines and have made an informed choice not to vaccinate their children – or at least to slow down the vaccination schedule – others haven’t. And, it seems indisputable that as the percentage of the vaccinated goes down, the herd immunity which protects everyone in society is lessened.

This may not affect your child, but undeniably it could affect others,especially those who for medical reasons cannot be immunized or have compromised immune systems. And government must look out for them too. Indeed, conservatives who are quick to support informed consent laws for abortions – an imperfect comparison for sure – should understand that government can never be neutral and sometimes for the good of all must put its thumb on one side of the scale to help prevent choices that harm the common good.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question whether the state’s new waiver rule is the best way of coordinating and fostering the common good. It doesn’t mean we should avoid asking what exactly the content of the education being given to parents will be. It doesn’t mean we should put aside fears of a state that encroaches upon the family. It does however give us an opportunity to think through what government is and what it is for.

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