A Look Back at Vaccines

Mary Wortley Montague public domain

As various strains of the flu claim lives this week, I take a look back at a time before vaccines, when people tried to protect themselves from deadly epidemics with desperate measures.  The passage below is an excerpt from my book, Jonas Salk: The Battle Against Polio.  The passage refers not to polio, but to smallpox.  The idea of induced immunity took hold among some.  Variolation–deliberately infecting the healthy with smallpox–was one early practice.  A diplomat’s wife, Lady Mary Wortley, introduced the practice to Europe.

Lady Wortley’s practice was not that far removed from the development of the polio vaccine.  In the twentieth century, two varieties became available.  One, the Salk vaccine, introduced a killed virus into a healthy person.  The other, the Sabin vaccine, introduced a weakened, live virus.  Each of these vaccines carried risks, though the risks were not as great as they had been with variolation.

  What follows is a brief description of Lady Mary Wortley’s experience with variolation.

In 1716 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu accompanied her husband, Edward, to Istanbul, where he became Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In Istanbul Lady learned about variolation. Lady Mary’s brother had died from smallpox and she had survived the disease. Although little was understood about smallpox, one thing was certain: once people survived the disease, they would never catch it again. This was the wisdom behind variolation.

The Ottomans dealt with smallpox by taking a small bit of dried material from the scab of someone who was infected with a mild case of the disease. The dried material would be blown into the nostrils of a healthy person. The idea was to make the healthy person come down with a mild case of smallpox and gain immunity from the disease for life. This was the Ottoman version of variolation.

When Lady Mary brought the practice to Europe, it was a little different. In Europe, material would be scraped from a smallpox scab on someone who was actively suffering from the disease. This material would then be scraped into the skin of a healthy person. That person, it was hoped, would come down with a mild form of smallpox, survive, and then have immunity for life.

Variolation was widely used, especially among the powerful. Though many did not trust the procedure, it was the only way to induce immunity from smallpox until Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine. Variolation was largely abandoned after Jenner’s vaccine because it was possible to come down with severe cases of smallpox as a result of the procedure. There were deaths from variolation.

A. G. Moore

February 5, 2018

Who Owns a Child?

What is the boundary between parental rights and state responsibility?  Even avowed libertarians will agree that at some point the state has an obligation to insure a child’s well-being. Difficulty arises in defining how closely the state can monitor that well-being and how the well-being is defined.  These definitions are not fixed.  Ideas about the rights of parents and children evolve.  Often, when the state steps in it does so in the name of the child, or at least that is the rationale given.  When the state fails to step in, it often takes this course out of respect for parental rights.  Unfortunately, both involvement and non-involvement can result in harm to the child.

Even if the discussion about parental rights were confined to the United States, it would quickly become apparent that there’s no universal agreement about where the state’s right to interfere in the home begins and ends.   While federal regulations exist that guide state child protection laws, interpretation of those laws varies from locality to locality.  For  example, the District of Columbia has several criteria for determining appropriate parenting.  One very specific regulation addresses the speed with which a newborn is collected from a hospital. If the child is left for “at least 10 calendar days” despite being medically fit for discharge, then the court might determine parental rights should be terminated.

The State of Georgia explicitly asserts that the preferred placement for a child is in the home:”…each child coming within the jurisdiction of the court shall receive, preferably in his or her own home, the care, guidance, and control that will be conducive to the child’s welfare and the best interests of the State…”

One parental prerogative on which every US state agrees is the right to inflict corporal punishment on children.  This right is exclusively reserved for parents in some states, while others allow corporal punishment to be inflicted by schools also.

Child welfare is something most people think they agree on.  However, ideas about child welfare vary from family to family, community to community.  At some point government steps in and decides when a child’s welfare has been endangered.  Communities decide on the boundary between government responsibility and parental rights.  Once the boundary is determined, a wide range of liberties may be affected.  It is hard to imagine every area where the boundaries might blur.  Certainly government is likely to assert an interest in custodial supervision, medical care and education. How that interest is expressed depends on where a family resides.  A guide to different rules in different states may be found in the publication: Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Many people don’t spend much time thinking about the ways government might intrude into family life. However, conflicts between government policy and family belief is not uncommon. This conflict may arise in families that decide to home school.  It may arise in families that decide not to vaccinate their children, or to forgo medical treatment.

Who owns a child?  All states to one degree or another are committed to protecting the welfare of children. It behooves a parent to understand the laws of the state in which the child resides, because ultimately, government is the final arbiter of where the boundary between parental right and government responsibility falls.

corporal punishment map