New York City is not a good place for unborn babies. The area has long had an abysmally high abortion rate, and even after a recent reported decline, it’s double the national average. But now, the unborn children and born infants of NYC face another threat, one that is largely beyond the control of their parents: New York City is experiencing a measles outbreak. (For now, it’s contained to northern Manhattan and the Bronx. If you live in NYC, you can get up-to-date information about the measles outbreak from the NYC Health Department.)
According to the CDC, if a pregnant woman is infected by the measles virus, her unborn child may miscarry. Even if the child survives, he or she faces an increased risk of premature birth, with all its attendant health problems. If a child contracts measles after birth, the chance of death is 1 or 2 in 1000. (That’s the statistic for the United States; in developing nations with an inadequate medical infrastructure, odds of death are much higher.) And children typically are not vaccinated for measles until 12 months after birth, which means that the youngest New Yorkers are at the greatest risk.
The general consensus is that declining vaccination rates are to blame. Now, the last thing I want to do on a Tuesday is have my time sucked into the vortex that is debating the merits of vaccines on the internet. You can probably guess where I can come down, but this post addresses a different question. Assuming that someone genuinely believes that the risks of the measles vaccine outweigh its benefits, what are that person’s ethical obligations to society at large? [Note: although some vaccines are made through a process that involves cell lines derived from aborted human remains, the measles vaccine is not one of them.] [Update: the rubella vaccine is, though, and I’ve been informed by several readers that the measles vaccine is not available separate from the rubella vaccine. You can find an extended discussion of the ethics of abortion-derived cell lines here.]
On the one hand, we have a bodily autonomy right (not wanting to be injected with a vaccine). On the other hand, we have the right to life (a risk of death for children who are too young to be vaccinated). This basic setup should be very familiar to our regular readers!
In keeping with the pro-life truism that the right to swing your fist ends where another person’s nose begins, I say this: if an individual decides not to receive the measles vaccine, fine, but that individual then has an ethical duty to avoid contact with all babies. That includes no socializing with your pregnant friends.
That happy coexistence of bodily autonomy and the right to life may be possible if you live in a rural area. It’s a tall order in New York City, where the ubiquity of public transportation means that you effectively have daily contact with hundreds of thousands of people who you never see.
What about legal consequences? Here, the analogy to abortion breaks down somewhat. [Note: I should emphasize that, although I am a lawyer, none of the following should be taken as legal advice.] There is some precedent for criminalizing the negligent transmission of a disease. But those laws are mostly limited to sexually transmitted diseases, which are obviously much easier to trace than diseases that can be spread by a cough in a subway. If the measles victim dies, a charge of negligent homicide is theoretically possible, but I haven’t found any examples. (I’d be interested to see how a court would rule if the defendant claimed bodily autonomy as a defense.) On the civil side, I see no reason why the family of a measles victim couldn’t sue for wrongful death, etc. Again, though, even if the protection of the law is adequate, proving who caused the infection is a significant barrier for any potential plaintiffs.
Bottom line: whatever the law in this area, consistent pro-lifers have an ethical duty to avoid harming others, and should bear that in mind as they make decisions about their health.