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The measles outbreak of early 2015 is symptomatic of a larger societal problem–the growing number of parents who decide against vaccinating their children. This failure is causing the resurgence of childhood diseases once eliminated from the United States.

This article explores the legal and ethical landscape of vaccine exemptions. While all states require childhood vaccinations, they differ significantly in the types of religious and/or philosophical exemptions permitted, the rigor of the application process, and available review mechanisms. States with relaxed exemption policies disproportionately experience more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease.

Vaccine exemptions are an illustration of the “tragedy of the commons,” in which parents choose not to vaccinate their children, relying on the fact that other parents will vaccinate their children, thus providing community immunity. However, the net result of many individual decisions not to vaccinate is the collapse of herd immunity and thus an upsurge in preventable disease and death.

The failure to vaccinate puts others at risk, thus violating an important ethical principle. However, punishing individual parents could entrench political opposition to vaccine policy. The most ethical and effective solution is for state legislatures to tighten vaccination laws, making it more difficult to obtain non-medical exemptions.

Publication Citation

Lawrence O. Gostin, Law, Ethics, and Public Health in the Vaccination Debates: Politics of the Measles Outbreak, JAMA Online (February 12, 2015),