As the latest measles outbreak made headlines nationwide last month, one important question arose about the ethics of mandatory vaccinations: Are there beliefs — parental or religious — that ought to allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children?
As an expert in bioethics, Jason Schwartz ’03 actively weighed in on the debate, speaking on public radio stations WHYY and WBUR. The consensus right now, Schwartz told PAW, is that exceptions should be available — but that they should be “pretty hard to get.” It shouldn’t simply be a matter of signing a form or checking a box, but “really making a parent explain their sincere beliefs about vaccination.”
Schwartz majored in classics and was also a pre-med student as an undergraduate. For a long time he thought he would be a physician or surgeon, but soon discovered, while pursuing graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, that he was much more interested in policy and social issues around health and medicine.
“I came to bioethics from the social sciences,” Schwartz said. He takes a social science perspective to think about ethically charged debates in medicine and public health. “For me, thinking about questions of ethics and values are rich opportunities to think about how scientists, physicians, and policymakers struggle with ethical issues. “
For the past three spring semesters, Schwartz, a postdoctoral research associate and lecturer in the University Center for Human Values, has taught an upperclass seminar on ethics and public health. Last fall, he also taught a freshman seminar on vaccination policy. Being part of the freshman seminar program was a walk down memory lane. In the fall of 1999, Schwartz took a seminar on Homer with the late Robert Fagles, the famous translator of the Iliad and the Odyssey. “It was such a great and wonderful experience that I asked my department chair to do one on my own interest,” Schwartz said.
The recent measles outbreak has highlighted tensions between the public good and private liberty, and Schwartz expects to be exploring that question for years to come. The issue goes beyond just government mandates and requirements, and extends to the broader question of how coordinate public health in the most effective and efficient way.
“This balance between individual and community we’ll see again and again, “ Schwartz said.
Schwartz will be leaving Princeton at the end of this academic year to take up a post as an assistant professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health, where he will teach an introductory class on health policy.