The Crime of Refusing VaccinationThe Crime of Refusing Vaccination

In 1902, a Swedish American pastor named Henning Jacobson refused to get the smallpox vaccine. This launched a chain of events that landed the Massachusetts pastor in a landmark 1905 Supreme Court case in which the Court considered the delicate balancing act between individual liberty over our bodies and our duty to one another.

“We can be grateful for his work here [while] at the same time also saying the dude was terribly mistaken about this one thing for which, unfortunately, he’s most famous now,” says Pastor Robin Lutjohann, who today leads the church that Jacobson founded, originally a haven for Swedish immigrants.

The Jacobson v. Massachusetts decision made clear that the government could mandate vaccination, arguing that collective good sometimes outweighs individual rights. But the line between the two is blurry. More than two decades after Jacobson’s case, the Court used the same logic in another decision, one the historian Michael Willrich says is among the “scariest U.S. Supreme Court decisions of all time.”

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This episode was produced by Julia Longoria and Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Katherine Wells. Fact-check by Will Gordon. Sound design by David Herman.

Music by Ob (“Wold”), Parish Council (“Leaving the TV on at Night,” “Museum Weather,” “P Lachaise”), Alecs Pierce (“Harbour Music, Parts I & II”), Laundry (“Lawn Feeling”), water feature (“richard iii (duke of gloucester)”), Keyboard (“Mu”), and naran ratan (“Forevertime Journeys”), provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional music by Dieterich Buxtehude (“Prelude and Fugue in D Major”), Johannes Brahms (“Quintet for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello in B Minor”), and Andrew Eric Halford and Aidan Mark Laverty (“Edge of a Dream”).