Rand Paul's 'Own Your Children' Argument is About More than Vaccines

The senator's remarks on mandatory vaccination are telling.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul spent the early part of the week attempting to clarify his stance on mandatory vaccination after he argued that the decision to immunize was best left to a child's parents. Making his case, Paul put forth what many might consider a common sense argument. 

“The state doesn’t own your children,” Paul told CNBC’s Closing Bell. “Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom and public health.”

As Bloomberg Politics' Lisa Lerer pointed out on Wednesday, the mistrust of government is a bedrock belief for many libertarians and conservatives:

While neither party has a lock on anti-vaccine sentiment, the GOP's suspicion of government, broadly, and of science, in general, is particularly strong, which explains why Republican candidates often find themselves struggling to strike a balance between medical evidence and conservative mistrust.

Further sharpening this point, however, is Paul's invocation of the word "own," when speaking of children. While the senator's point may be that parents, not the government, know what's best for their children, the truth is that there are some areas in which the state exercises influence that are no longer particularly controversial (and some that still are). Here's a handy list:


When it comes to saving lives and preventing the spread of harmful diseases, no public health measure has been as successful as vaccines. In 1855, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to pass a law that made the smallpox vaccine mandatory. Fifty years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Massachusetts was within its constitutional rights to do so. Seventeen years later, school vaccination was  in effect in much of the country, and the Supreme Court dismissed an attempt by a San Antonio family to allow their child to attend public school without receiving immunizations beforehand. By the 1990s, all 50 U.S. states required that children be vaccinated in order to attend public school, though a patchwork of exemptions have since been  granted on religious, philosophical, and medical grounds.  As a result, some seemingly eradicated childhood diseases are making a comeback. 

Child labor laws

For much of the nation's history, children were put to work in factories and sweatshops, often for long hours and little pay. In 1836, however, Massachusetts became the first state to enact the first government restriction requiring child factory workers under the age of 15 to attend school at least three months a year. While other states passed their own laws regulating child labor, it wasn't until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that a national law banned child labor, and established a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour. 

Child abuse

While the definition and enforcement of child abuse laws is left mostly left to the states, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974, and most recently amended and reauthorized the act in 2010. The law sets minimum standards for states to receive federal funding to help curb child abuse. Several other federal laws have been passed to help protect children, however, including statutes aimed at preventing sexual trafficking and kidnapping. 

Compulsory education

Once again, Massachusetts led the way in enacting a law that mandated that children attend school, passing An Act Concerning the Attendance of Children at School in 1852. While compulsory education is an issue left to the individual states, by 1913, all of them had laws on the books establishing standards for schooling. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that sought to expand educational opportunities to disadvantaged communities in the country through federal funding. The act was re-authorized in 2002 and given a new name: No Child Left Behind.  

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