SCOTUS Decides Vaccine Debate

SCOTUSReading the Daily Kos earlier today I learned that the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled, in 1905, that individual liberties when confronted by government regulated immunizations were denied for the greater good of the society. It is interesting to read from the opinion of first Justice Harlan’s for the Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (copied below). It isn’t just about the decision upholding immunization but pay attention to the subtext of this ruling from 1905 and compare it to the way the Supreme Court is operating today. You can get a good idea of the difference from the final paragraph of Justice Harlan’s opinion:

We are not prepared to hold that a minority, residing or remaining in any city or town where smallpox is prevalent, and enjoying the general protection afforded by an organized local government, may thus defy the will of its constituted authorities, acting in good faith for all, under the legislative sanction of the state. If such be the privilege of a minority, then a like privilege would belong to each individual of the community, and the spectacle would be presented of the welfare and safety of an entire population being subordinated to the notions of a single individual who chooses to remain a part of that population. We are unwilling to hold it to be an element in the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States that one person, or a minority of persons, residing in any community and enjoying the benefits of its local government, should have the power thus to dominate the majority when supported in their action by the authority of the state.

Or the short form from earlier in the opinion:

The answer is that it was the duty of the constituted authorities
primarily to keep in view the welfare ... and safety of the many,
and not permit the interests of the many to be subordinated to the
wishes or convenience of the few.

And here is the full excerpt from Justice Harlan’s opinion (with emphasis added by Kos):

The authority of the state to enact this statute is to be referred to what is commonly called the police power,-a power which the state did not surrender when becoming a member of the Union under the Constitution. […] According to settled principles, the police power of a state must be held to embrace, at least, such reasonable regulations established directly by legislative enactment as will protect the public health and the public safety. Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 203, 6 L. ed. 23, 71 […] We come, then, to inquire whether any right given or secured by the Constitution is invaded by the statute as interpreted by the state court. The defendant insists that his liberty is invaded when the state subjects him to fine or imprisonment for neglecting or refusing to submit to vaccination; that a compulsory vaccination law is unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive, and, therefore, hostile to the inherent right of every freeman to care for his own body and health in such way as to him seems best; and that the execution of such a law against one who objects to vaccination, no matter for what reason, is nothing short of an assault upon his person. But the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy. Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others. This court has more than once recognized it as a fundamental principle that ‘persons and property are subjected to all kinds of restraints and burdens in order to secure the general comfort, health, and prosperity of the state; of the perfect right of the legislature to do which no question ever was, or upon acknowledged general principles ever can be, made, so far as natural persons are concerned.’ Hannibal & St. J. R. Co. v. Husen, 95 U.S. 465, 471 , 24 S. L. ed. 527, 530 […]

[… T]he answer is that it was the duty of the constituted authorities primarily to keep in view the welfare […] and safety of the many, and not permit the interests of the many to be subordinated to the wishes or convenience of the few. […]

Looking at the propositions embodied in the defendant’s rejected offers of proof, it is clear that they are more formidable by their number than by their inherent value. Those offers in the main seem to have had no purpose except to state the general theory of those of the medical profession who attach little or no value to vaccination as a means of preventing the spread of smallpox, or who think that vaccination causes other diseases of the body. What everybody knows the court must know, and therefore the state court judicially knew, as this court knows, that an opposite theory accords with the common belief, and is maintained by high medical authority.

[…] It must be conceded that some laymen, both learned and unlearned, and some physicians of great skill and repute, do not believe that vaccination is a preventive of smallpox. The common belief, however, is that it has a decided tendency to prevent the spread of this fearful disease, and to render it less dangerous to those who contract it. While not accepted by all, it is accepted by the mass of the people, as well as by most members of the medical profession. […]

Since, then, vaccination, as a means of protecting a community against smallpox, finds strong support in the experience of this and other countries, no court, much less a jury, is justified in disregarding the action of the legislature simply because in its or their opinion that particular method was-perhaps, or possibly-not the best either for children or adults. […]

The defendant offered to prove that vaccination ‘quite often’ caused serious and permanent injury to the health of the person vaccinated; that the operation ‘occasionally’ resulted in death; that it was ‘impossible’ to tell ‘in any particular case’ what the results of vaccination would be, or whether it would injure the health or result in death; that ‘quite often’ one’s blood is in a certain condition of impurity when it is not prudent or safe to vaccinate him; that there is no practical test by which to determine ‘with any degree of certainty’ whether one’s blood is in such condition of impurity as to render vaccination necessarily unsafe or dangerous; that vaccine matter is ‘quite often’ impure and dangerous to be used, but whether impure or not cannot be ascertained by any known practical test; that the defendant refused to submit to vaccination for the reason that he had, ‘when a child,’ been caused great and extreme suffering for a long period by a disease produced by vaccination; and that he had witnessed a similar result of vaccination, not only in the case of his son, but in the cases of others. […]

These offers, in effect, invited the court and jury to go over the whole ground gone over by the legislature when it enacted the statute in question. […] It seems to the court that an affirmative answer to these questions would practically strip the legislative department of its function to care for the public health and the public safety when endangered by epidemics of disease. Such an answer would mean that compulsory vaccination could not, in any conceivable case, be legally enforced in a community, even at the command of the legislature, however widespread the epidemic of smallpox, and however deep and universal was the belief of the community and of its medical advisers that a system of general vaccination was vital to the safety of all.

We are not prepared to hold that a minority, residing or remaining in any city or town where smallpox is prevalent, and enjoying the general protection afforded by an organized local government, may thus defy the will of its constituted authorities, acting in good faith for all, under the legislative sanction of the state. If such be the privilege of a minority, then a like privilege would belong to each individual of the community, and the spectacle would be presented of the welfare and safety of an entire population being subordinated to the notions of a single individual who chooses to remain a part of that population. We are unwilling to hold it to be an element in the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States that one person, or a minority of persons, residing in any community and enjoying the benefits of its local government, should have the power thus to dominate the majority when supported in their action by the authority of the state.

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