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What Are the Legal Implications of Not Vaccinating Your Child?

What Are the Legal Implications of Not Vaccinating Your Child?

Several cases of measles outbreaks struck various areas in the United States in the past couple of years. News reports and investigations tied these outbreaks to people who did not receive a measles vaccine. As a result, the controversy about the efficacy and risks associated with vaccinations and the decision not to vaccinate a child has reignited.

This blog takes a look at the potential legal issues surrounding this controversy. This article is not meant to be a critique or promotion of any particular position on the central issues of the controversy.

The Vaccination Controversy

The vaccination controversy has centered around the question of whether vaccinations are necessary for a child’s health and public safety. A vaccine introduces a weakened form of a viral disease to a person’s body, allowing a person’s natural immune system to recognize and attack the virus. However, vaccines have been shown to contain certain ingredients that have known toxic properties to humans.

Opponents of vaccinations often connect vaccine use to adverse reactions that have disabling or fatal consequences. Members of the anti-vaccination movement also claim that vaccinations have effectively driven many diseases into extinction, and therefore vaccinations are unnecessary for vulnerable infants.

Proponents of vaccinations point out that vaccinations are mostly safe, and adverse reactions to vaccines are due to a small percentage of people who are allergic to some component of a vaccine. Many people who support the use of vaccinations claim that any toxic material used in vaccinations are in quantities that are too small to impact a child’s health negatively.

Ultimately the controversy boils down to a conflict between the individual rights of parents in raising their children according to their beliefs and public health and safety. Some arguments against vaccination refusals have even gone as far as alleging child neglect or abuse.

Vaccine Exemption Laws

States throughout the country have laws requiring a person to be vaccinated before they attend school or travel abroad. However, a person can get a medical exemption if they have a condition—such as an allergy—that would put them at risk of serious injury or death if they were vaccinated. Most states also have laws that recognize exemptions to vaccination requirements based on personal or religious beliefs. As of 2019, only five states do not recognize a religious or personal belief exemption for school immunization requirements.

The five states without immunization exemption laws are:

  • California
  • Maine
  • Mississippi
  • New York
  • West Virginia

Iowa recognizes a religious exemption for school vaccination requirements. Under Iowa Code § 139A.8, a student is exempt from a school’s immunization requirements if they submit a sworn statement “stating that the immunization conflicts with the tenets and practices of a recognized religious denomination of which the applicant is an adherent or member.”

Child Endangerment Laws

State laws impose different consequences on parents who are found to have committed some form of child endangerment or abuse. Under Iowa Code § 726.6, a parent has committed the crime of child endangerment, listing nine situations that constitute child endangerment. Not only does child endangerment constitute a crime, but it can also adversely affect a parent’s custody rights because courts determine child custody issues based on factors that favor a child’ best interest.

Two of those situations arguably apply to a parent’s decision not vaccinate their child:

  • “Knowingly acts in a manner that creates a substantial risk to a child or minor’s physical, mental or emotional health or safety…”
  • “Willfully deprives a child of necessary food, clothing, shelter, health care or supervision…”

Under the first situation, a parent who decides not to vaccinate their child knowing that they could become infected with a severe, life-threatening disease could be guilty of child endangerment. However, this argument is problematic for several reasons. Many parents believe that vaccinations present a substantial risk to the child’s health and safety and that not vaccinating them is the safer course of action.

Under the second situation, a parent who decides not to vaccinate their child has arguably willfully deprived their child of necessary health care. However, Section 726.6 also provides that “the failure to provide specific medical treatment shall not for that reason alone be considered willful deprivation of healthcare if the person can show that such treatment would conflict with the tenets and practice of a recognized religious denomination of which the person is an adherent or member.”

Thus, in Iowa, the decision not to vaccinate must coincide with a practice or value of a religion. However, this exemption might not apply to many people in the anti-vaccination movement because their problem with vaccinations isn’t necessarily religious-based—it is closer to a personal belief.

Many physicians consider the refusal to vaccinate to constitute medical neglect and have reported refusals to state child protective services. For the most part, state courts have agreed that vaccine refusal constitutes neglect, absent a valid exemption or waiver. But state law on this issue differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.


As you can see, the laws on vaccinations try to balance public health and safety against individual rights and freedoms. Some states, like Iowa, recognize exemptions based on the child’s medical condition or religious belief. Other states recognize a personal conviction exemption as well. However, refusal to vaccinate without a valid exemption has been and could be considered to be child neglect or endangerment by state courts. Not only is child neglect or endangerment a crime, but it could negatively impact your custody rights over your child.

For more information about how things like vaccinations can affect your custody rights, call the Hope Law Firm at (515) 305-2772 or contact us online today.