Whether or not to vaccinate a child is one of the most important medical decisions that a parent or legal guardian can make for a child. Although many parents believe that the decision whether to vaccinate or not is purely theirs, under certain conditions a court may order that a parent or legal guardian vaccinate a minor child. The failure to comply with a compulsory vaccination order can result in significant legal consequences including the possible removal of a child from the care of a parent or guardian.
Most states have statutes which allow a court to assume jurisdiction over a child, and step in to make or overrule medical decisions in cases of abuse or neglect. The standards for abuse or neglect vary greatly as courts examine the unique circumstances of each case. Courts must give parental rights substantial weight in deciding whether to issue an order to intervene and force a vaccination. Only when a child’s right to health is compromised will a court intervene.
Courts have the difficult task of determining what circumstances would warrant the intervention of the court to protect the child’s rights. Given the rare nature of most of the diseases against which doctors vaccinate (such as measles, diphtheria or rubella), it can be hard to argue that the failure to vaccinate is a life-threatening choice. Vaccinations are generally considered preventative and not life threatening.
Courts that have ordered vaccinations usually can point to a significant or already existing danger to that particular child. These circumstances could include children born to mothers who have the hepatitis B virus, or children at an immediate risk to develop tetanus. In those cases, courts often mandate a specific vaccination for the minor child.
Other factors that a court may consider in making its decision on compulsory vaccination includes whether the treatment is experimental in nature, the vaccination’s chances of success, the risks association with the vaccination and the invasiveness of the vaccination (whether it can be administered orally, intranasally or by injection.)
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