A precept of American law is that, absent a special relationship, an individual is under no legal duty to act to help another in need. That means that a passerby is under no obligation to help people escape from a burning car. Even if the act would be of minimal effort and no potential harm, an individual generally has no duty to act unless he or she created the other's peril.
But what about refusing to have your children vaccinated? Jed Lipinski recently argued in Slate that parents who don't vaccinate their kids should be sued for damages--or criminally charged. That's going a bit far, and there are a lot of moving parts in American jurisprudence that would make such a regime challenging, to say the least. But the consequences of refusing vaccines are real.
Just ask the folks at Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Neward, Texas. There the AP reported that a recent measles outbreak at the church of televangelist Kenneth Copeland revealed that many church members had not been vaccinated:
Although church officials were quick to act after the outbreak — including hosting clinics in August where 220 people received immunization shots — and have denied they are against medical care or vaccinations, people familiar with the ministry say there is a pervasive culture that believers should rely on God, not modern medicine, to keep them well.
"To get a vaccine would have been viewed by me and my friends and my peers as an act of fear — that you doubted God would keep you safe, you doubted God would keep you healthy. We simply didn't do it," former church member Amy Arden told The Associated Press.
Health officials say 21 people were sickened with the measles after a person who contracted the virus overseas visited the 1,500-member Eagle Mountain International Church located on the vast grounds of Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Newark, about 20 miles north of Fort Worth.
Of the 21 people who contracted measles linked to the church, 16 were unvaccinated. The others may have had at least one vaccination, but had no documentation.
As the parent of a young child and as a Christian, I find this news horrifying. And I blame "The View." OK, I don't. But I find the anti-vaccine crowd to be among American society's more troubling social problems. Seriously. Vaccines are the classic public good--and they only work best, in particular by protecting from infection those who are too young to be vaccinated, if everyone buys in.
I also don't see how Christians can think that taking health precautions means not trusting God. Do the same people not wash their hands after using the bathroom?
This 2007 story from Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network--"Are Vaccines Safe for Your Kids?"--feeds into the anti-vaccine pathology. It's only slightly less crazy than when Robertson said this or this or this or this.
On the other hand, Rachel Marie Stone's 2012 article for Christianity Today explains how if you love your neighbor, you'll get your kids vaccinated:
Vaccinations work on the theory of "herd immunity": As long as most people in a given population are immune, the risk of susceptible people getting sick is very small. So people who can't be immunized because they are too young (newborn babies), too old, too sick (people with immune system problems), and people for whom immunizations simply didn't "take," are protected by the immunity of the "herd," namely, those of us who got our shots.
What concerns me about the anti-vaccination movement is not merely the fact that people are so easily persuaded by falsified claims about vaccine risks, nor the tragedy of people losing their lives to diseases that were (thanks to vaccines) nearly eradicated. Rather, I'm concerned that so many people seem willing to let others carry the supposed burden of vaccination so that they don't have to. To me, that's a failure of the commandment to love our neighbors: our infant neighbors, our elderly neighbors, and our immune-compromised neighbors. That's a disease of the soul for which the only treatment is love—best shown in the God who became man to bear our infirmities in his own body.
So what should Christians do? First, they should be educated about the real risks of vaccines--the really, really small risks. Second, they shouldn't pretend that God eschews good medicine. And then they should stop endangering the lives of others because, you know, that's not a very Christian thing to do.