The unvaccinated woman from New Mexico who recently traveled through four U.S. airports while infected with the measles made me think of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.” He was paraphrasing the great British philosopher John Stuart Mill who argued in a classic 1860 essay that the sole justification for interfering with another person’s liberty was to prevent harm to others.
Our traveler has the right to choose against being vaccinated. But she does not have the right to expose those at high risk of infection — newborns, those with immunological disorders and those whose immune systems are suppressed due to a transplant or cancer treatment — to a fatal case of measles.
Anti-vaccine zealots say that whatever one’s reason for opposing vaccination for themselves or their kids, America must respect their choice. They yell about freedom, individual rights and liberty. A lot of Americans apparently agree with this view.
The scientific case for the importance of vaccines is overwhelming and beyond any dispute (and most worries about safety rest on fear and lies). But still, most states by law permit parents to opt out of vaccination requirements by invoking religious or philosophical objections no matter how zany those may be.
Maybe each person, including our measles-laden friend from New Mexico, is free to travel throughout the United States putting others at risk. But shouldn’t they be held accountable for that choice when it hurts others?
We don’t know yet if she infected anyone. Health officials are frantically trying to track down those she came in contact with. But we do know that measles remains a highly contagious disease. About 164,000 people worldwide die of measles each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So let’s listen to two of the staunchest defenders of individual rights and liberty ever to take pen to paper — Mill and Holmes. If you infect my newborn or my grandmom because you put your liberty over your duty to help protect the weak and the vulnerable and chose not to get vaccinated then you are responsible for the harm you do and you ought to be liable for it.
I don’t really don’t care to give lawyers more business but if the only way to get those who put other lives at risk by selfishly or stupidly not vaccinating is to sue them then so be it. If the lady from New Mexico is a Typhoid Mary spreading measles throughout America as she goes her merry uninoculated way then she ought to pay for those she disables, sickens or kills.
OK, lawyers, have at her.