As drugmakers race to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus, several legal questions are emerging: could the government require people to get it? Could people who refuse to roll up their sleeves get banned from stores or lose their jobs?
The short answer is yes, according to Dov Fox, a law professor and the director of the Center for Health Law Policy and Bioethics at the University of San Diego.
“States can compel vaccinations in more or less intrusive ways,” he said in an interview. “They can limit access to schools or services or jobs if people don’t get vaccinated. They could force them to pay a fine or even lock them up in jail.”
Fox noted authorities in the United States have never attempted to jail people for refusing to vaccinate, but other countries like France have adopted the aggressive tactic.
The legal precedent dates back to 1905. In a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the court ruled Massachusetts had the authority to fine people who refused vaccinations for smallpox.
That case formed the legal basis for vaccine requirements at schools, and has been upheld in subsequent decisions.
“Courts have found that when medical necessity requires it, the public health outweighs the individual rights and liberties at stake,” Fox said.
In 2019, New York City passed an ordinance that fined people who refused a measles vaccination.