Where Medicine Meets Law: Vaccinations and Legal Custody
Since the 18th century, vaccines have been used to stave off and in some instances eradicate the spread of polio, measles, mumps, and other diseases that children have historically been vulnerable to. In more recent years the conversation over the pros and cons of vaccination has gained traction, with proponents of the anti-vax movement citing religious beliefs, safety concerns, and a desire for more information from their healthcare providers as the basis for their decision to delay or refuse vaccinations for their children. Unsurprisingly this discussion has carried over into custody courtrooms, giving rise to a balancing act between a parent’s right to choose what’s best for their child and the court’s duty to preserve the health, safety, and well-being of children involved in custody disputes.
When many people hear the word “custody”, they think of it in terms of how much time each parent is afforded with their child or children. This is more specifically referred to as “physical custody.” Also included in the general term “custody”, however is the right to make educational, religious, legal, and medical decisions for one’s children. This is referred to as “legal custody.” In Pennsylvania custody matters, legal custody will typically be designated as “joint,” whereby each parent has equal decision-making power regarding their children and neither may unilaterally make major decisions regarding the child’s health, safety, and education without mutual agreement.
Where parties to a custody action have shared legal custody and cannot agree on a decision relating to their child’s health, religion, or education, the courts are tasked with making a determination. As the anti-vaccination movement has gained traction, courts are faced with the challenge of preserving the best interest of the children while recognizing and protecting an individual’s right to make parenting decisions. In many instances where parents cannot agree on whether or not to vaccinate, courts will order the parents to follow the recommendation of their child’s pediatrician. As much uncertainty and ambiguity as there is over this issue, one thing is sure. As medicine and law continue to adapt and evolve, so too will the courts’ treatment of a parent’s right to refuse or delay vaccination.
For more information about legal custody and how the courts interpret/apply it, call and speak with one of our attorneys at (610) 892-3877.