In 1901 a deadly smallpox epidemic tore through the Northeast two of the prominent cities ordered the vaccination of all residents,. Those refusing the shot claimed the vaccine order violated their personal liberties under the Constitution.
Jacobson, an immigrant who was vaccinated in Sweden claimed “great and extreme suffering” as a result. He made way to the U.S. Supreme Court where a 1905 ruling affirmed the government’s authority to “reasonably” infringe upon personal freedoms during a public health crisis. Their solution was fine $5.00 to those who refused the vaccination.
Smallpox, is a highly contagious, fever-inducing illness causing a severe rash on the face and arms often scarring those infected. Public health officials issued compulsory vaccination orders, hoping to achieve herd immunity.
Months later a full-fledged smallpox “panic”, health authorities ordered the closure of all schools, public libraries and churches in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.
Anti-vaccination groups grew, citing alleged cases of death and deformity from bad reactions to smallpox vaccine. Fact checker? These groups, explained this as compulsory vaccination “the greatest crime of the age,” that it “slaughter[s] tens of thousands of innocent children.”
The New York Times dismissed anti-vaccine activists as “a familiar species of cranks” who were “deficient in the power to judge [science].”
The question, then became whether the “right to refuse vaccination” was among the protected life, liberty, or property of the 14th Amendment, without due process of law.”
A Hallmark Decision…… The Supreme Court rejected Jacobson’s argument! Justice John Marshall Harlan acknowledged the fundamental importance of personal freedom, but also recognized that “the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.” Later this decision became known as the “reasonableness” test. “The government had the authority to pass laws that restricted individual liberty, if those restrictions—including the punishment for violating them—were found by the Court to be a reasonable means for achieving a public good”.