By the time of the Leicester protest, public opinion was souring toward vaccination. The injections were not completely without risk, with a percentage of those who received the vaccination becoming ill, and riots broke out in towns such as Ipswich, Henley, and Mitford, according to a 2002 paper in the British Medical Journal. The Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League launched in London in 1867 amid the publication of multiple journals that produced anti-vaccination propaganda. Another chapter cropped up later in the century in New York City to spread the “warning” about vaccines to the United States.
Under this pressure, the British government introduced a key concept in 1898: A “conscientious objector” exemption. The clause allowed parents to opt out of compulsory vaccination as long as they acknowledged they understood the choice. Similar to today’s religious exemptions in 47 U.S. states and the personal belief exemptions in 18 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the parents signed paperwork certifying that they knew and accepted the risks associated with not vaccinating.
Modern vaccination activists come from a different world than those in the 19th century. While anti-vaxers today are largely upper middle class, the crowd opposing vaccination in the 19th century was largely composed of lower- and working-class British citizens, according to Durbach.
“They felt that they were the particular targets, as a class group, for vaccination and for prosecution under the compulsory laws,” she says. “This was part of a larger expression of their sense of themselves as second-class citizens who thus lacked control over their bodies in the way that the middle and upper classes did not.”
By the close of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th, the protests had come to a head. The anti-vaccination sentiment had spread to the U.S., garnering support in urban centers such as New York City and Boston.
The British government ceded its stringent line to the protests of the people. The law was amended yet again in 1907 to make the exemptions easier to obtain—because of an extensive approval process, many parents could not obtain the necessary paperwork to claim the exemption before the child was more than four months old, past the deadline.
The U.S. government, however, took a harder tack. In the 1905 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the court upheld the state government’s right to mandate vaccination. The Massachusetts Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Society lobbied hard for the court to rule in favor of the plaintiff, but all they won from the decision was the provision that individuals cannot be forcibly vaccinated.
The protests quieted after these two decisions, but small pockets of unease have now bubbled up again. Durbach said that unless the root issues are addressed—the boundaries of personal freedom versus social obligations—the movement will continue to resurface with different faces.
“The argument about personal freedom is important,” Durbach says, “but we willingly surrender these freedoms when we believe it is for the public good and our own safety.”