William Wagner
Parents, vaccinations, and the power of the state
By William Wagner
May 10, 2015

You, not the State, hold responsibility and authority over decisions concerning the upbringing of your children. This timeless truth provides an objective moral standard essential to the preservation of liberty and good governance under the rule of law. Indeed, the Supreme Court repeatedly describes this self-evident truth as a fundamental constitutional liberty – both as a right to the free exercise of religious conscience under the First Amendment and as an implied right under the liberty protected by the 14th Amendment.

Freedom of conscience is a fragile thing though. In a frightening example of statism, California plans, by force of law, to impose vaccinations on the children of California parents. Because the State ties its vaccination mandate to education, its decree removes their right to control and direct the upbringing of their child both as to educational choice and as to medical decisions in their best interest. To ensure its State-mandated decision for their child stands, the proposed law also abolishes all exemptions protecting religious conscience or personal belief (no matter how true the belief is).

Thus, the freedom of conscience and the sanctity of parents directing the upbringing of their children no longer serve as moral benchmarks against which to measure the propriety of state imposed vaccination laws. Instead, we are told such things are public policy matters for the state to decide. Moreover, parents should not bother asking to participate in the debate if their view of the world is informed by sacred principles, since they are told they must only adopt public policy informed by utilitarian secular dogma – without regard to any sacred conscience or moral considerations.

Beware. When governments eliminate the self-evident moral element from law, they remove any moral point of reference with which to measure whether their laws are right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust. In such an environment, the state inevitably institutes its own brand of utilitarian-based policies at the expense of individual liberty and the freedom of conscience.

With nothing to limit those in power from imposing on the few whatever they deem in the best interest of the many, very bad things happen. Forced sterilization of healthy women, scientific experimentation on African Americans without their consent, and the institution of slavery are just a few examples of what happened when our American government refused to recognize self-evident unalienable liberty as a limit on its utilitarian policy-making. If the State of California succeeds in imposing a view of governance where children belong to the State, the freedom of conscience and the unalienable right of parents to raise their children will no longer serve as a reliable limit on government action.

Replacing the sacred parental right to responsibly decide a child's vaccination need with an authoritarian mandate merely creates an illusion of a nation willing to protect fundamental freedoms. Such a course inevitably erodes essential foundations of good governance. Those who came before us built our constitutional democratic republic upon the foundations of faith, family, and freedom. The self-evident inviolable standard that parents are best equipped to make decisions in the best interests of their children is not subject to the morally relative utilitarian whim of shifting governmental regime preferences. Government is supposed to protect a parent's freedom, not seize it and exercise it for them.

William Wagner is Professor and Director of the Center for Human Rights at Trinity Law School in Santa Ana.

© William Wagner


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