Child Vaccination: What Happens If Parents Disagree?

The FDA has recently approved the COVID-19 vaccine for children. While some parents have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to vaccinate their children, many others are against it. Some parents are against any vaccinations for their children, while others are simply unsure of the new COVID-19 vaccine. In some situations, parents may agree not to vaccinate their children. However, schools or other organizations may require vaccinations to participate or attend. If divorced or unmarried parents cannot reach an agreement, they may need to return to court to have the judge resolve the issue.

What Is A Joint Decision-Making Authority?

The decision to vaccinate can be difficult in intact families. However, it can be even more challenging in single-parent households with joint legal custody. Divorced parents sharing joint legal custody are both entitled to make major decisions affecting the child. Such decisions must be agreed upon. Typical matters about which parents must agree include school choice, religious upbringing, and non-emergency medical treatment. This decision-making authority encompasses the decision of whether to vaccinate the child.

What to Do If Parents Disagree on Child Vaccination

Vaccine disputes between parents can get very hostile very quickly. It’s important to remember that despite the disagreement, both parents are acting out of concern for the welfare of the child. When parents cannot reach an agreement regarding vaccinating the child, there are a few steps to consider.

Check Your Paperwork

You may have outlined how to resolve disputes in your parenting plan. Because parents can’t predict the future, many articulate a preferred dispute resolution process to follow when unforeseen issues arise. Even where the parties share equal custody, the custody order may grant one parent the ultimate say in medical decisions. If this is the case, that parent’s preference may prevail over the other parent’s objections.

Mediate the Problem

If your custody agreement doesn’t provide answers, you may desire to negotiate the issue with a mediator. Mediators are neutral third parties that represent neither parent. Instead, they help facilitate a resolution to whatever dispute is at hand. In the event mediation is unsuccessful and the parties are still at odds, it may be necessary to take your matter to court.

Petition the Court for a Decision

In a conflict over vaccines, the issue boils down to what is in the best interest of the child. The parent seeking to vaccinate the child may argue that the vaccine impacts the future health and well-being of the child. The parent may also argue that not receiving the vaccine will result in negative social and educational consequences.

Arguments Against Vaccination

In Washington, a parent may be able to argue against vaccinations based upon personal and philosophical, religious, or medical grounds.

Personal and Philosophical Grounds

In 2019, the Washington legislature passed a bill amending its vaccination mandate for school-age children to receive the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. The amendment removed the personal and philosophical option for parents to exempt their children from receiving the shot. While the law makes no mention of COVID-19 vaccinations, it may be indicative of the outcome for challenges to future vaccine mandates, as well as challenges in family court.

Washington’s Department of Health website highlights that the 2019 amendment does not change religious and medical exemptions. In addition, the amendment does not change personal and philosophical exemptions for vaccines other than MMR.

Medical Grounds

Typically, medical exemptions are based on “contraindications,” or reasons not to administer a particular medicine. In that case, a parent can attempt to make the case that the child has a known history of allergic reactions to a specific ingredient present in the vaccine.

Religious Grounds

A Washington court may entertain a parent’s refusal to vaccinate their children based on religious grounds. However, a court must first find that the parent’s belief is sincerely held. Even when a parent’s beliefs are sincerely held, U.S. Supreme Court case law seems to support the notion that the best interests of the child—and community—should prevail over a parent’s religious objections.

In Prince v. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court found that the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable diseases, sickness, or death. The Court explained, “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children.”

Contact an Experienced Washington Family Legal Matters Lawyer

As the FDA and CDC begin to endorse vaccines for children, more and more cases where parents disagree on child vaccinations will arise. Parents’ disagreements on the issue of child vaccinations will surely be a hotly litigated issue in the next few months. When parents disagree over child vaccinations, it is important to consult with seasoned Washington legal team about your rights and options. Contact our team of Tacoma family legal matters attorneys at Blago Kiger Bolan, P.S., today for a consultation. We are with you every step of the way.

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