As the recent measles outbreak finally grabs the attention of the mainstream media, all eyes and ears are on the various 2016 Presidential hopefuls as they share their pro- and anti-vaccine stances.
Republicans have to navigate these tricky waters carefully, to avoid alienating folks in their base who demand exclusive parental control of all things related to their children. And Democrats must be giving at least a passing moment's consideration to the "anti-vaxxers" among their traditional wealthy, well-educated, city-dwelling base (and should, perhaps, focus more on educating and less on shaming them).
Hillary Clinton weighed in for the pro-vaccine side with a silly but well-intentioned Twitter hashtag, "#GrandmothersKnowBest" ... perhaps ignoring generations of grandmas who advised a bit of cereal in baby's formula to help with a good night's sleep, or some nice whiskey for those sore teething moments. Hillary may be a grandma, but not all grandmas are Hillary.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie walked back his potentially anti-vaccine comments yesterday, but Rand Paul (son of a doctor, no less) stuck by his view that vaccines should be voluntary. He followed this up with the statement that, "The State doesn't own your children; parents own the children...."
And then my head exploded. You own your dog; you do not own your child. You are the guardian of your child. The typical statement we include in guardianship petitions here in Iowa is illustrative of the legal role parents (or other guardians) have when it comes to the children for whom they are responsible:
"The decision making capacity [of the ward, the person to be placed under guardianship because of disability or status as a minor child] is so impaired that the ward is unable to care for his or her personal safety or unable to attend to or provide for such necessities as food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, without which physical injury or illness may occur." Matter of Guardianship of Hedin, 528 N.W.2d 567 (Iowa 1995).
In establishing a parent-like relationship between two people (guardian and ward), the Court makes a determination that the ward needs a guardian to keep her safe, healthy, clothed, and fed. And the Court further determines that the lack of such a guardian is likely to result in harm. Only when that determination is made will a guardianship be put in place. The guardianship then operates much like the parent-child relationships we see all around us. In fact, a guardianship that is put in place for a minor child automatically ends when the child is no longer under the "disability of minority," in other words, when the child turns 18.
Those of us who work with families in the legal system know this "parent = guardian" notion well. The best interests of children sometimes require their removal from their parents (not their owners) because their parents cannot or will not keep them safe. The best interests of children also require the State, if it gets involved with a family because of safety concerns, to try to keep the family intact and to provide supports to make it stronger. The best interests of children sometimes require the Court to impose custody or visitation arrangements that, in the opinion of a Judge, are best for the child but incredibly difficult for everyone else.
The evidence in support of the safety and efficacy of vaccination for measles is overwhelming. The risks to infants and immunocompromised people from unvaccinated children are terrifying. I understand that many will try to turn this health crisis into a debate over government-mandated vaccination, and maybe that's inevitable. Perhaps the more fruitful discussion will be over whether those who choose not to vaccinate their children are failing in their roles as their children's guardians.