Jacobson v. Massachusetts

Jacobson v. Massachusetts

In rare cases, individuals are taken to court for refusing toundergo a medical procedure or takes the authorities to court afterbeing forced to undergo a medical procedure. Unless the medicalprocedure negatively affects the individual, immunizations andrelated procedures are considered to be for the good of the societyas well as the individual. However, this was the basis of theJacobson v Massachusetts in the United States (1905) where the UnitedStates Supreme Court ruled that the state has the authority toimplement compulsory vaccination laws. Although the court referred tothe rights and freedom of individuals as enshrined in theconstitution, it argued that these rights are subordinate to thewelfare of the society and therefore subject to enforcement usingpolice power. The case involved Henning Jacobson and the state ofMassachusetts. Henning Jacobson was an immigrant of Sweden originliving in the Cambridge Massachusetts. In 1902, an outbreak ofsmallpox was reported in the state where all adults in the statewhere required to undergo immunization. However, Henning Jacobsondeclined to comply with the directive. He argued that the vaccinewould affect him and his son negatively. It is however, important tonote that at in the early 20th century, Massachusetts wasone of the few states in the United States that had vaccination lawsthat legalized compulsory vaccination in the interest of thecommunity. In the case, the United States Supreme Court ruled thatthe law does not violate any constitution rights of an individual andordered Henning Jacobson to pay a fine of five dollars. On the otherhand, Henning Jacobson received support from the “MassachusettsAnti Compulsory Vaccination Association” (James &amp Ronald,2005).

The Supreme Court of the United States made a decision (7-2majority) in the ruling delivered by Justice John Marshall Harlanrejecting Henning Jacobson that the compulsory vaccination was aviolation of the provisions of the fourteenth amendment of theconstitution. The court argued that the punishment through fines orimprisonment for refusing to participate in a vaccination exercisewas justified and acceptable. However, the court ruled that personscannot be forcibly vaccinated. The court ruling also created amedical exemption in the state laws where the judges acknowledgedthat some vaccinations may be cruel to certain individuals. Thisexempted adults from the compulsory immunization laws (James &ampRonald, 2005).

The ruling against Henning Jacobson set a new legal president whereunder certain circumstances, personal liberties and freedoms can besuspended by the authorities. For example, the government canencroach or limit the rights and freedoms of individuals if the“safety of the general public may demand”. After the ruling thestate authorities could use police power in the interest of thegeneral public. However, anti-vaccine movements started mobilizingtheir supported against the court’s ruling. They argued that it waswrong for the government to intrude into private lives of individualsthrough immunizations. About twenty years later, in the Zucht v. Kingcase of 1922, the supreme court of the United States affirmed itsdecision when it ruled that an institution can refuse to admit astudent on the bases that he or she has not been vaccinated asrequired. Since then, the different states in the United States havecontinued to enforce compulsory vaccination programs (James &ampRonald, 2005).


James C. &amp Ronald, B. (2005). &quotManifold Restraints: Liberty,Public Health, and the Legacy of Jacobson v. Massachusetts&quot,American Journal of Public Health, vol. 95, no. 4, 571–576