When the Supreme Court Upheld a Compulsory Vaccination Law – Reason.com
In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the U.S. Supreme Court confronted a state law that allowed local governments to require smallpox vaccinations when the local health authorities deemed them necessary. Cambridge resident Henning Jacobson balked at his city’s vaccination requirement and was fined $5. He contested that penalty and took his case all the way up to the highest court in the land.
What was Jacobson’s legal argument? In the words of the Court, Jacobson “insists that his liberty is invaded when the State subjects him to fine or imprisonment for neglecting or refusing to submit to vaccination; that a compulsory vaccination law is unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive, and, therefore, hostile to the inherent right of every freeman to care for his own body and health in such way as to him seems best.”
The Supreme Court rejected that argument. The 7–2 majority opinion, written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, agreed that the “power of a local community to protect itself against an epidemic threatening the safety of all might be exercised in particular circumstances and in reference to particular persons in such an arbitrary, unreasonable manner, or might go so far beyond what was reasonably required for the safety of the public, as to authorize or compel the courts to interfere for the protection of such persons.” But this case, he concluded, did not rise to that standard. The law was ruled to be a reasonable regulation.