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Should Parents Be Liable If Unvaccinated Children Sicken Others?

A registered nurse, Michele Pereira is among the growing number of parents questioning the government's schedule of mandatory vaccinations for children. She poses at a park in Ashland, Ore., holding her daughter Genevieve, 2, as her daughter Evangeline, 6, plays in the background. (Jeff Barnard/AP)

A registered nurse, Michele Pereira is among the growing number of parents questioning the government’s schedule of mandatory vaccinations for children. She poses at a park in Ashland, Ore., holding her daughter Genevieve, 2, as her daughter Evangeline, 6, plays in the background. (Jeff Barnard/AP)

A measles outbreak in the New York is prompting bioethicist Art Caplan to wonder about the consequences of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.

He argues that parents should have the right to not vaccinate, but they should also expect to be sued if their child gets someone else sick.

He writes in Harvard Law School’s Bill of Health blog:

If your kid gets the measles, and remember public health officials are getting very very good at tracing outbreaks to their source, and makes my kid sick (can happen since vaccine is not 100% effective), my newborn baby die (newborns can’t benefit from vaccines) or my wife miscarry (fetuses are at especially high risk), then shouldn’t I be able to sue you for the harm you have done?

Caplan says providing a legal avenue to hold an unvaccinated person accountable for sickening someone serves two goals.

First, it provides a measure of justice for a family that is affected by an unvaccinated person’s choice. Second, the possibility of a lawsuit would encourage individuals to get vaccinated.

Ultimately, Caplan said, this is a question about balancing individual choice with responsibility to the community.

While Caplan concedes that 100 percent compliance is impossible, he said, “to protect the population, we don’t need 100 percent, we just need 90 percent.”

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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