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Roger & Ann Worthington Essay Prize in Plan II Honors

  • First Prize: Santiago Sanchez             $5000  (First Prize)

  • Second Prize: Avery Eyster                 $2500  (Second Prize)

  • Freshman Prize: Aaron Birenbaum     $3500 (Freshman Prize)

2015 Prompt

Mandatory Vaccinations

You are a state legislator representing a large metropolitan area. Following several recent cases of mumps and measles in one affluent public school district—and one death—the superintendent and the school board have asked you to consider a change to state law concerning mandatory vaccinations.

Many vaccinations, including the MMR vaccine that protects against mumps and measles, are mandatory for all students enrolled in public high schools, but there is an exemption for families whose religious beliefs prohibit or discourage vaccination. There’s also an exemption for students who have complicating health issues, such as a compromised immune system. The number of families claiming the religious exemption in this district has grown significantly over time—from just a few dozen a decade ago to over one thousand this year.

You convene a hearing and listen to the expert testimony of public health officials, educators, parents and religious leaders. A demographer tells you that it is statistically unlikely that hundreds of families have recently converted to an organized religion that prohibits vaccination.

“What religion are people claiming to be?” one of your colleagues asks.

“The religious exemption application we use does not require the family to disclose its religious affiliations,” the superintendent says. “To claim an exemption, the family must merely affirm that vaccinations are contrary to their religious beliefs. This is the standardized exemption form used throughout the state.”

“Sounds like some of these folks must be lying about their religious beliefs,” your colleague, Rep. Stone, suggests. “We should make them declare what religion they belong to and where they go to church. Maybe get their pastor to sign the form, too, verifying that they’re a real member of the congregation.”

“Don’t you think that’s violating their privacy?” asks Rep. Gonzales.

“Not if they’re putting our students’ health at risk.” Stone says. “If they want us to accommodate their religious beliefs we should be able to confirm that those beliefs are sincere.”

“Can’t they believe something sincerely without being a member of an organized religion?” Gonzales asks.

“Maybe we don’t need a religious exemption at all,” Rep. Lee says. “If they don’t want to get a vaccination maybe they should homeschool or go to a parochial school with other kids whose families don’t believe in vaccination.”

Your colleagues seem uncertain about what policy change would be most logical, ethical, and practical. “It’s your district,” Rep Gonzales says. “What do you think?”

Assignment: In a brief essay, articulate an argument to keep, change, or remove the state’s religious exemption policy. You may draw on actual data about epidemiology and public health policy. You may consider policies in use in the U.S. and abroad.

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