Vaccination and the law – resolving disputes over medical treatments.

Vaccination image


Did you know that Australian courts can order that a child be vaccinated or given other medical treatments, overruling the consent of one or both parents, and even overruling the child’s own refusal?

Last week ABC’s Law Report host Damian Carrick and his guest, Professor Cameron Stewart of University of Sydney Law School looked at a number of cases where the courts had ordered vaccination over at least one party’s objections. Each of the cases discussed involved strong underlying values and beliefs.

In the Randall* case the children’s mother opposed vaccinating the children as she feared “vaccine-related injuries”. When the marriage broke down, the father wanted to immunise the children for health and social reasons. The court rejected the mother’s evidence and ordered that the vaccinations go ahead. In the Kingsford* case, the mother wanted the children to be treated homoeopathically with the homeoprophylaxis treatment regime. The father and his new wife wanted the child of the first marriage immunised. The mother applied for an injunction preventing the child from being immunised however the new wife had already had the child vaccinated against a range of illnesses, without the mother’s knowledge or consent. The court in that case approved the vaccination albeit retrospectively.

Cases involving older children – teenagers aged up to 17 years – also take into consideration the child’s views on vaccination, the basis upon which those views were formed, and what is in the child’s best interests. In the Kingsford case, for example, one of the children was 15 years old when the case was finally determined. The court heard that she was also opposed to vaccination not only because she shared her mother’s views on the potential risks involved, but she was a vegan, and objected to being treated with the animal-derived components used in making the vaccine. Ultimately the judge overruled those concerns, but they were considered in the decision making process.

There is no doubting that each of parents involved in these vaccination disputes want the best for their children; the problems arise when their ideas about what is in their best interests differ so radically.

If you are involved in an argument over medical treatment of a loved one, be they your parent, child or spouse, what can you do to resolve the dispute before the court intervenes?

  1. Listen

So often we are fixated on our own fears and desires, we don’t really hear what the other party is saying; we are just looking for evidence that they are “against” us. Try to put your own concerns aside and really listen to what the other person is telling you. Are they worried and afraid? Do they feel their opinion is being dismissed? What outcome do they want?

  1. Identify what outcome you want

Try to think about the outcomes you want on a “big picture” level. Be specific, but not too specific. For example, “I want our children to lead full, healthy lives, and not be excluded from school and social activities” rather than “I want out children to be immunised”. Odds are the other parent has the same goals for your kids.

  1. Talk about the future not the past

Once you’ve identified your and their fears, ask questions about the future, instead of focussing on the past. If, for example, you are considering whether an elderly parent will have a flu shot, ask questions like “Will Mum be able to go on outings with her friends if she is not vaccinated, or will she be excluded?” and “What are the risks of Dad getting ill from the flu shot? What are the risks of him not having the shot? Which one is potentially more damaging?”

  1. Know when to get help

If you sense the discussion is getting out of hand or you are up against immoveable opposition, try not to let the argument damage the relationship. Suggest instead that you involved a 3rd party to help resolve the dispute. This might mean visiting the family GP together to discuss the pros and cons, holding a meeting with the school, nursing home or day care staff to find out what consequences may flow from vaccinating/not vaccinating, and finally, if you still cannot agree, engaging a mediator to help you work through the options.

Download the Law Report podcast at the Radio National website.

*the parties’ names were changed by the courts for reporting purposes.



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