Where Medicine Meets Law: Vaccinations and Legal Custody


Where Medicine Meets Law: Vaccinations and Legal Custody

Since the 18th century, vaccines have been used to stave off and in some instances eradicate the spread of polio, measles, mumps, and other diseases that children have historically been vulnerable to.  In more recent years the conversation over the pros and cons of vaccination has gained traction, with proponents of the anti-vax movement citing religious beliefs, safety concerns, and a desire for more information from their healthcare providers as the basis for their decision to delay or refuse vaccinations for their children.  Unsurprisingly this discussion has carried over into custody courtrooms, giving rise to a balancing act between a parent’s right to choose what’s best for their child and the court’s duty to preserve the health, safety, and well-being of children involved in custody disputes.

When many people hear the word “custody”, they think of it in terms of how much time each parent is afforded with their child or children.  This is more specifically referred to as “physical custody.”  Also included in the general term “custody”, however is the right to make educational, religious, legal, and medical decisions for one’s children.  This is referred to as “legal custody.”  In Pennsylvania custody matters, legal custody will typically be designated as “joint,” whereby each parent has equal decision-making power regarding their children and neither may unilaterally make major decisions regarding the child’s health, safety, and education without mutual agreement.

Where parties to a custody action have shared legal custody and cannot agree on a decision relating to their child’s health, religion, or education, the courts are tasked with making a determination.  As the anti-vaccination movement has gained traction, courts are faced with the challenge of preserving the best interest of the children while recognizing and protecting an individual’s right to make parenting decisions.  In many instances where parents cannot agree on whether or not to vaccinate, courts will order the parents to follow the recommendation of their child’s pediatrician.  As much uncertainty and ambiguity as there is over this issue, one thing is sure.  As medicine and law continue to adapt and evolve, so too will the courts’ treatment of a parent’s right to refuse or delay vaccination.

For more information about legal custody and how the courts interpret/apply it, call and speak with one of our attorneys at (610) 892-3877.

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About the author

About Christopher Casserly

Chris joined the firm in 2013 after graduating from Villanova University School of Law. While at Villanova Chris focused on Family Law and Alternative Dispute Resolution. In addition, he participated in the Villanova Law Civil Justice Clinic where he advocated for indigent clients facing custody issues. Prior to attending law school, Chris received his B.A. from Providence College where he studied English and French. Chris is a Supervising Attorney and Team Leader at LaMonaca Law. Chris was named a “Top Lawyer” in Family Law by Main Line Today in 2015 and 2017, as well as a Best Lawyer in the area of Adoption in the Delaware County Daily Times. He is a member of the American Bar Association Family Law Section, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, and the Delaware County Bar Association, where he serves as chair of the Family Law Section’s Custody Committee. When he’s not advocating for his clients, Chris enjoys cooking, all things Seinfeld-related, and being at the shore with his family and their dog, Molly.