In 2018, American couple Sarah and Travis Mitchell were imprisoned for six years for negligent homicide after refusing to call a doctor when their daughter, born prematurely at home, fell ill and died. As members of a church that rejects modern medicine, they chose to rely on the power of prayer.
This case is extreme and abhorrent; it is obvious parental autonomy would never extend to relying on miracles instead of medicine. Consequently, British judge Justice Moylan ruled in 2014 the young son of Jehovah’s Witnesses could be compelled to receive a blood transfusion, contrary to his parents’ religious beliefs.
Judaism takes as a given that we are custodians of our bodies. We are primarily eternal souls, and our temporary, physical bodies are ours to look after, not use
as we wish.
While rabbinic authorities mandate a degree of autonomy, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein argues this is limited in cases, for example, where painful treatment could prolong life only temporarily. One cannot therefore give permission for another to harm oneself for no reason.
Judaism recognises, however, that life involves risk. The verse “God protects the innocent” is invoked by the Talmud, as well as all rabbinic authorities, to give mandate to trivial, prosaic activities, such as riding a bike or taking paracetamol, that God protects those who act normally, despite the presence of a small risk.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Bleich writes that when there is a small, but remote danger that can be easily averted, such as wearing a seatbelt, taking a Tay-Sachs test, or being vaccinated, one can’t invoke this principle.
Finally, Judaism gives weight to medical opinion – one is permitted to break Shabbat based on the majority of doctors’ opinions.
Given the overwhelming number of doctors who support vaccination, that parents are custodians for their children’s health, and the nature of autonomy in Jewish medical ethics, it is untenable from a halachic standpoint to support the argument that parental authority allows parents to exempt their children from vaccination without medical grounds.
- Rabbi Garry Wayland is a teacher and educator for US Living and Learning