History of vaccine mandates and dissent

When Georgetown University Professor of Global Health Law and Director of the World Health Organization's Center on Global Health Law Lawrence Gostin says "there have always been a lot of anti-vaxxers," he means for nearly as long as this country's existed.

"The Anti-Vaccine League of America goes back well into the early 19th century," Gostin said.

So the backlash to the COVID vaccine requirements now and soon-to-be imposed by universities, cities, states and -- most recently -- the federal government is not only nothing new but also nothing surprising to students of history, who might also take objection with Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan's tweet Monday calling vaccine mandates "un-American."

"Vaccine mandates clearly are not un-American," Gostin said. "In fact, they're particularly American."

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For what's more American than George Washington? More than 244 years ago, General Washington ordered doctors to crudely inoculate the entire Continental army against smallpox. The discovery of a more formal smallpox vaccine years later encouraged local governments across the country to require smallpox vaccinations at various points over the next century. And people protested. But in 1905, the supreme court ruled mandatory vaccinations constitutional.

"The Supreme Court has not once but twice upheld vaccine mandates," Gostin said.

And courts have continued to affirm those decisions, through the discoveries of polio, measles and all the other vaccines every state -- red, blue and purple -- now requires doctors to give to schoolchildren, after states imposed broader vaccine mandates in the 1970s.

So for Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to call Biden's vaccine requirement "unconstitutional" when Mississippi forbids parents from claiming religious exemptions to avoid the state's nine required childhood vaccines may seem hypocritical, but Gostin reminds us the majority of vaccine mandates in this country's history have occurred at the city or state level.

"Biden is of course the President of the United States," Gostin said, "and the federal government has limited power to require vaccines."

But thanks to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, enacted by congress in 1970 to give the president clear and explicit power to set reasonable, scientifically based standards for workplace safety, Gostin sees Biden's vaccine requirement as on "extraordinarily strong legal ground" --- no matter the predictable, and perhaps unprecedentedly partisan, public backlash.

"I've never seen the vitriolic response and the deeply partisan response to vaccinations as I'm seeing now," he said.