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Student Project: Compulsory Vaccination Law In New York State: Jacobson v. Massachusetts

Compulsory Vaccination Laws in New York With an Emphasis on Provisions for Minors and School Admissions

Landmark Case

Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905) is the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case involving vaccination mandates, or laws which require individuals to be vaccinated or face penalties. The Supreme Court recognized that states had absolute authority, granted under 10th Amendment police power, to enforce compulsory vaccination. The decision articulated the belief that individual liberty must be subordinated to the welfare of the general public, as well as the collective good of the nation. Thus liberty, in relation to public health, may be subordinate to the power of the state.

Background Information

In 1902, during a smallpox outbreak centered in Massachusetts, minister Henning Jacobson emphatically refused to comply with the town's order that all its adult citizens be vaccinated. Jacobson claimed while he was a child, a vaccine had made him seriously ill. He was ordered to pay a $5 fine, but refused to pay it, claiming that compulsory inoculation violated both the state and federal constitutions. The courts rejected this argument.

Implications of Jacobson v. Massachusetts

Jacobson v. Massachusetts, expressly enunciated a framework for the protection of public welfare over individual liberties (liberty interest) as granted by the U.S. Constitution. Essentially, the Supreme Court held that personal liberty may be circumvented for the good of the public under state police power. As such, as long as a vaccination statute or policy serves a legitimate public purpose (to protect against potential epidemics), then it is within the state's power to compel vaccinations as a provision and requirement for any undertaking. Thus, a person’s bona fide belief against vaccination is not a sufficient excuse for noncompliance. However, a person could be exempted because of a physical condition that posed a particular risk for adverse effect, or for legitimate religious and/or philosophical beliefs.

Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics