In the best traditions of a free society, vaccination is not compulsory in the UK and anyone is entitled to withhold consent to being inoculated. In an important ruling, however, the High Court overruled a mother's moral and safety objections to her four-year-old son taking part in the national child vaccination programme.
The mother was an educated and principled woman who looked after her son very well. She was concerned about the ingredients of vaccines and the harm that they might cause to her son's health. Despite medical advice that vaccinations are safe, she argued that such reassurance was gainsaid by the existence of a government scheme by which compensation is paid to those who suffer adverse reactions to vaccines. The boy's father, from whom she was separated, believed that their son should be vaccinated and sought the Court's directions in that respect.
Ruling on the matter, the Court noted the consensual nature of the UK's vaccination system and acknowledged that vaccination is an intrusive intervention. The human rights of both mother and child to respect for their privacy and family lives were engaged. The Court, however, was uncomfortable with the idea that one parent should be able to make a unilateral choice regarding a child's vaccination.
The Court was far from convinced that vaccinating the boy would be unsafe. The step was supported by expert medical evidence that it would effectively protect him against a number of grave diseases, some of them potentially life-threatening. There were no contra-indications in his medical history and the risk of side-effects was outweighed by the protection that vaccination would afford him.
There was a risk that he could suffer emotional harm if his mother felt undermined. There was no issue about her capability as a parent and her objections were based on her genuine beliefs. Given the risk of harm to which the boy would be exposed if not vaccinated, however, the Court found that any interference with his mother's rights was proportionate and justified.
In ruling that the boy should be vaccinated, the Court also noted that, under Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, he was entitled to enjoy the highest attainable standards of health. Encouraging a consensual approach, the Court urged the parents to discuss the practicalities of the boy's vaccination so that the process would be as un-disruptive as possible.