By Erin Talati
In my last post, I puzzled over the boundaries of the state’s right to step in to protect the interests of children over the religious wishes of their parents, prompted by the question of whether it would be appropriate to prophylactically transfuse the child of a Jehovah’s Witness in order to minimize the risk of future harm. As I continue to think about this question, I remain convinced that the boundaries are exceedingly fuzzy and do not necessarily seem to distinguish circumstances in a way that favors action “in the best interests of the child.” Rather, in looking at another situation in which the interests of the child may come into conflict with the religious or other interests of the parent, on the whole, it seems that the decision to intervene rests more on the legal basis for intervention rather than overall promotion of the best interests principle.
Take, for example, the general approach to vaccine refusals by parents. The rights of parents to refuse vaccines for their children, generally, can be grounded in medical, philosophical, or religious objections. Medical exemptions, based on medical contraindications to vaccination, remain the most robust mechanism of parental refusal. All states permit exemption from mandatory vaccination on the basis of medical exemptions. Exemption for medical contraindication is consistent with the best interests principle as vaccination in these cases arguably is not in the best interests of the child. Fewer states permit vaccine refusal on the basis of moral or philosophical objections. In almost all states, excepting Mississippi and West Virginia, parents can refuse vaccines for religious reasons, with states requiring varying levels of support for refusals grounded in religious objection. It seems reasonable that, from the standpoint of protection of individual liberties, states would preference religious beliefs of parents in allowing refusals. Still, when either a religious or philosophical objection are not concurrently accompanied by a medical contraindication to vaccination, neither justification for refusal promotes action in the best interests of the child.