The long history of vaccine mandates in America

During World War II, the U.S. military made vaccinations mandatory for a host of diseases, such as typhoid, yellow fever and tetanus. While some worked better than others, vaccination became an accepted part of life for GIs, who brought this attitude home. Soon successful vaccines were developed against childhood diseases like polio, measles, mumps and chickenpox. Guided by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Jacobson, all 50 states put laws on the books mandating vaccinations for school children. Medical and religious exemptions were added, though few used them at the time.

Those days of nearly universal compliance with vaccine requirements are long gone. The revival of the anti-vaccine movement in the 1990s was driven by claims of a link between the ever-increasing number of vaccines mandated for children and the proliferation of unexplained afflictions, especially autism. Study after study disproved these links, but some parents now had second thoughts. Why vaccinate against diseases like polio or measles, which had been all but eradicated?…

Almost 300 years ago, Benjamin Franklin went through his own inner struggle over whether to have his sons variolated against smallpox, which was then a cutting-edge medical technology. In his “Autobiography,” he worried that well-meaning people were tragically misjudging the risks and rewards, as he himself had done.

“In 1736, I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way,” Franklin wrote. “I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”