Ethics of vaccine refusal

J Med Ethics. 2022 Apr;48(4):240-243. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2020-107026. Epub 2021 Feb 26.


Proponents of vaccine mandates typically claim that everyone who can be vaccinated has a moral or ethical obligation to do so for the sake of those who cannot be vaccinated, or in the interest of public health. I evaluate several previously undertheorised premises implicit to the 'obligation to vaccinate' type of arguments and show that the general conclusion is false: there is neither a moral obligation to vaccinate nor a sound ethical basis to mandate vaccination under any circumstances, even for hypothetical vaccines that are medically risk-free. Agent autonomy with respect to self-constitution has absolute normative priority over reduction or elimination of the associated risks to life. In practical terms, mandatory vaccination amounts to discrimination against healthy, innate biological characteristics, which goes against the established ethical norms and is also defeasible a priori.

Keywords: philosophical ethics; public health ethics; right to refuse treatment.

MeSH terms

  • Dissent and Disputes
  • Humans
  • Moral Obligations
  • Vaccination
  • Vaccination Refusal*
  • Vaccines*


  • Vaccines