The Tyranny of Public Health Marches On

Prince George’s County, Maryland, a D.C. suburb, has ordered parents to get their children vaccinated — or go to jail.

Two months into the school year, school officials realized that more than 2,000 students in the county still didn’t have the vaccinations they were supposed to have before attending class.

So Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols ordered parents in a letter to appear at the courthouse Saturday and either get their children vaccinated on the spot or risk up to 10 days in jail. They could also provide proof of vaccination or an explanation why their kids didn’t have them.

Yes, vaccines help prevent diseases, many of them serious, but a move such as this essentially tells parents: You don’t know how to take care of your kids, so we’ll tell you what to do. That is an indignity no fit parent should bear.

Parents lined up at the PG County Courthouse this weekend to prove that their kids had been immunized, but the schools had misplaced the records.

Many of [the parents] complained that their children already were properly immunized but the school system had misplaced the records. They said efforts to get the paperwork straightened out had been futile.

“It was very intimidating,” Territa Wooden of Largo said of the letter. She said she presented the paperwork at the courthouse Saturday and resolved the matter.

“I could be home asleep. My son had his shots,” said Veinell Dickens of Upper Marlboro, who also blamed errant paperwork.

Aloma Martin of Fort Washington brought her children, Delontay and Taron, in 10th and 6th grade, for their hepatitis shots. She said she had been trying to get the vaccinations for more than a month, since the school system sent a warning letter. She had an appointment for Monday, but came to the courthouse to be safe.

“It was very heavy handed,” she said of the county’s action. “From that letter, it sounded like they were going to start putting us in jail.

According to the AP story, Judge Nichols was disturbingly untroubled by this spectacle. He said of the kids’ dour expressions as they waited in line: “It’s cute. It looks like their parents are dragging them to church.”


This episode brings to mind Jacob Sullum’s Reason article from last May, on the novel ways government is intruding into our lives in the name of “public health,” in which he outlines the mindset behind such public health heavy-handedness:

Some public health theorists explicitly recognize that their aims are fundamentally collectivist and cannot be reconciled with the American tradition of limited government. In 1975 Dan Beauchamp, then an assistant professor of public health at the University of North Carolina, presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in which he argued that “the radical individualism inherent in the market model” is the biggest obstacle to improving public health. “The historic dream of public health that preventable death and disability ought to be minimized is a dream of social justice,” Beauchamp said. “We are far from recognizing the principle that death and disability are collective problems and that all persons are entitled to health protection.”

Not only are all persons entitled to health protection, but they’re going to get it, whether they want it or not. Beauchamp rejected “the ultimately arbitrary distinction between voluntary and involuntary hazards” and complained that “the primary duty to avert disease and injury still rests with the individual.” He called upon public health practitioners to challenge “the powerful sway market-justice holds over our imagination, granting fundamental freedom to all individuals to be left alone.” So the right to be left alone—the right Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis considered “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men”—turns out to be the leading risk factor for disease and injury.

And if you think that’s intrusive, imagine what government would invoke as legitimate interventions once it picks up the tab. Makes me wonder what Ben Franklin would say about those who would give up “essential liberty” for some temporary good health.