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Rights of the Unvaccinated Child

Studies in Law, Politics, and Society

ISBN: 978-1-78714-812-3, eISBN: 978-1-78714-811-6

Publication date: 30 June 2017


Much of the discussion surrounding the antivaccine movement focuses on the decision of parents to not vaccinate their children and the resulting danger posed to others. However, the primary risk is borne by the child left unvaccinated. Although living in a developed country with high vaccination rates provides a certain amount of protection through population immunity, the unvaccinated child is still exposed to a considerably greater risk of preventable diseases than one who is vaccinated. I explore the tension between parental choice and the child’s right to be free of preventable diseases. The chapter’s goal is twofold: to advocate for moving from a dyadic framework – considering the interests of the parents against those of the state – to a triadic one, in which the interests of the child are given as much weight as those of the parent and the state; and to discuss which protections are available, and how they can be improved. Specific legal tools available to protect that child are examined, including tort liability of the parents to the child, whether and to what degree criminal law has a role, under what circumstances parental choice should be overridden, and the role of school immunization requirements in protecting the individual child.




I am very grateful to Dr. Paul Offit for the inspiration for the blog series that led to this article, and for his help and feedback in writing it. I am just as grateful to Amy Pisani and Christine Vara for allowing me to publish an initial short exploration of the topic the Shot of Prevention blog, and for their patient work editing and commenting on it. I am also indebted to Arthur Caplan, David Jung, Robert Schwartz, Lois Weithorn, and Kelly Weisberg for their excellent comments and help on earlier stages of the project. Any errors that ended in the chapter are, of course, my responsibility. I am grateful to Jessie Cassella, Madeleine Lough-Stevens, Katelyn Phillips, and Christopher Cochrane for excellent research assistance.


Reiss, D.R. (2017), "Rights of the Unvaccinated Child", Studies in Law, Politics, and Society (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 73), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 73-108.



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