What if a mother decided not to vaccinate her daughter for measles, based on rumors that the vaccine causes autism, and her daughter gets the disease at the age of 4 and passes it to a 1-year-old, who is too young for the vaccine, at her day care center. And what if that baby dies?   

That’s the sad scenario, more or less, of a Season 10 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And it’s the hypothetical case study in a provocative paper in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics that explores whether there’s a case for holding people legally accountable for the damage they cause by not vaccinating their children. “One can make a legitimate, state-sanctioned choice not to vaccinate,” the bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan and his co-authors write, “but that does not protect the person making that choice against the consequences of that choice for others.” Since epidemiologists today can reliably determine the source of a viral infection, the authors argue, a parent who decides not to vaccinate his kid and thus endangers another child is clearly at fault and could be charged with criminally negligent homicide or sued for damages.

As you’d expect, the growing anti-vaccination movement responded in fury. After Caplan wrote a related post for the Harvard Law Blog, angry comments poured in. “This article is industry propaganda at its worst,” one commenter declared. Another wrote: “Caplan would have familiar company in fascist Germany.” The blog eventually shut down the comments for violations of the site’s policies against “abusive and defamatory language” and the sharing of personal information.