As of February, there were 50 confirmed measles cases in Washington, one of 19 states that allow vaccine exemptions for “philosophical and personal” reasons. Of those confirmed cases, 34 occurred in children under the age of ten, the vast majority of whom were not vaccinated. The upshot is that kids are getting sick because parents have placed personal liberty — their legally protected right to make irresponsible medical decisions — over community safety. But that’s what happens when a country or a culture operates on the mistaken premise that raising children is purely the individual pursuit of parents.
The ongoing measles outbreak in Washington was caused by parents attempting to prioritize the wellbeing of their children over the wellbeing of their communities. Clark County, at the epicenter of the outbreak, only saw 78 percent of 6 to 18-year-olds receive the age-appropriate MMR vaccine dose of two shots. Of those who opted out only 1.2 percent had done so for legitimate medical reasons. Nearly 7 percent, on the other hand, had opted out for personal or religious reasons (fear of autism being the unstated theme here).
Personal freedom is great, but exercising personal freedoms can lead to tragedies in the commons. Benjamin Franklin famously said that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” That was a cool thing to say. But Franklin’s maxim only makes sense in the context of a public movement or a shared civic purpose. That’s what he was talking about. Unfortunately, that quote — like so many — is easily twisted into a celebration of selfishness or as an individualist cri de coeur.
For parents, this American tendency to lionize the personal over the public creates problems. The whole “don’t tell me how to raise my kids” rhetorical tradition in this country has led, one can easily argue, to the government materially divesting from the American family. American parents receive very little support. We look out for our own. We are given the legal means to raise our children as we choose and little incentive…
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