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Vaccination Mandates Are an American Tradition. So Is the Backlash.

The Constitution “does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint,” Justice John Marshall Harlan, known for defending civil liberties, wrote. “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.”

In the court of public opinion, there was no such resolution.

The polio vaccine was less controversial, mainly because it wasn’t initially mandated and because it had been funded by a widely respected nonprofit: the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now called the March of Dimes. This reduced opposition based on mistrust of pharmaceutical companies, and most parents willingly got their children vaccinated. The measles vaccine, too, was not particularly controversial because mandates were not initially enforced.

“Nobody was enforcing vaccination, and so it simply didn’t elicit that mistrust,” Professor Conis said. In the smallpox era, by contrast, “skeptical people said, ‘Well, why are we doing this? It just benefits the companies making the vaccine and the doctors administering the vaccine, and why should we trust any of them?’”

But the fear and anger came roaring back with the introduction of childhood vaccination mandates in the 1970s. By 1980, all 50 states required schoolchildren to be vaccinated against an array of diseases.

None of it is new, but one thing distinguishes today’s anti-vaccination protesters from those of the past. The opposition was always political. It wasn’t always partisan.

“There are plenty of echoes today: There are liberty claims, there are strong sentiments about parental rights, there are concerns about the science, there are concerns about the profit involved,” Professor Willrich said. “But this party divide in terms of who is most likely to be hesitant or refuse a vaccine mandate is really, I think, something of our own 21st-century moment.”