Undergraduate Research & Scholarships

Jonathan Kuo Humanities and Social Science

Historicizing the Personal Belief Exemption to Vaccination in American History

Current U.S. state laws permit vaccine mandate exemptions based on medical contraindications, religious beliefs, or personal beliefs. In recent years, outbreaks of measles attributed to subpar vaccination rates have caused the personal belief exemption to come under close scrutiny from lawmakers, medical officials, and the public. Current scholarly literature, however, lacks a clear history of the personal belief exemption, in part because that history varies by state. In this project, I will visualize and narrate the story of the personal belief exemption in American history. Through an interactive essay grounded in original historical research, I will explore how the exemption’s changing language, geographical spread, uneven application, and legal context reflect and inform America’s ever-shifting notions of conscience, liberty, and morality. In doing so, I aim to create a resource about the history of the personal belief exemption accessible to members of the public, policymakers, and public health experts, that I anticipate will prove useful as the ever-contested exemption figures into future policy discussions concerning COVID-19 vaccination.

Message To Sponsor

I am deeply grateful to the Pergo Foundation for recognizing the value of humanistic and interdisciplinary approaches to contemporary medical and public health challenges. This project represents the culmination of three years of personal and academic exploration into the social history underlying scientific issues that continue to trouble the present moment. I feel fortunate to be a student at Berkeley, where independent research on such complicated questions is valued, encouraged, and made possible with generous donor support. Thank you.
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Major: Rhetoric, Molecular and Cell Biology
Mentor: Elena Conis
Sponsor: Pergo Fund
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