In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the United States Supreme Court upheld the right of states to enact compulsory vaccination laws—one of the most challenging constitutional dimensions of public health. It also provided the terms for what would eventually become a core question of public health ethics.
This case has become the precedent for many cases that have challenged vaccination laws. Both majority and dissenting opinions in numerous decisions have cited this case in reference to states’ authority to constrain individual behavior. These cases have involved issues ranging from fluoridation of municipal water supplies, to abortion, to the right to die. In Buck v. Bell (1927), the Supreme Court used Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) to uphold a forced-sterilization law using the reasoning that society must be protected from the burdens imposed by the offspring of “imbeciles.” Despite the troubling uses to which this decision has been put, public health law texts continue to cite the case as an example of the ways that public health practices must resolve the tensions between individual rights and the collective well-being.
Based on these Supreme Court decisions, respond to the following:
Do you believe health departments should be able to enter your house without a warrant from a judge?
Should health departments be able to isolate or quarantine you without a trial? Why or why not?