The state senator behind a new bill stripping vaccine choice from Vermont parents wrote this piece in the Rutland Herald (directly below) defending his proposed legislation. It is both unpersuasive and confused. Our response below points out the flaws in his reasoning and delineates why the legislation should be rejected.
A matter of health and safety
Published: March 29, 2012
Throughout the debate on whether to eliminate the exemption for children to attend school without the recommended vaccines for philosophical reasons, much has focused on the personal stories of parents involved on both sides. We’ve heard from parents of children whose lives have been saved by a vaccine, and we’ve heard from parents who believe strongly that their children do not need immunizations and should not be forced into medical action. I come at this debate with a personal story of my own.
When he was an infant, my son Bartley received the recommended dosage of vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). It was the typical torturous experience for a parent to see a needle enter your child’s tiny leg, but it was necessary and safe, our pediatrician said. The problem was the unexpected reaction my son had to the immunization — an extremely high fever. Our doctor recommended we forgo the second dose of MMR and today my son is not fully vaccinated against those diseases. I worried last year when Vermont saw its first case of measles in a decade. I’ll worry tomorrow, just in case.
For me it’s always come down to the single question of whether we can save a child’s life by protecting the greater public. We entered into this debate with a lot of questions and have spent the bulk of the session hearing hours of compelling testimony, studying the science behind the facts and listening to passionate parents on both sides of this issue.
No one will tell you it was easy, and no one will tell you that we take this job lightly. But our job is to ensure our decisions have a positive impact on society, and it would be irresponsible for us to look at the facts — a growing number of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks in Vermont and an increasing number of children being exempted from having the CDC recommended immunizations to enter kindergarten — and not act.
That is where we find ourselves today: We must act to change the course we are on. For me, if that means one less child contracts whooping cough —compared to more than 90 who did in 2011 — it’s enough of a reason to act.
For many of the opponents, there have been further erroneous arguments to try and derail the legislation, claiming constitutional violations under both the U.S. and Vermont constitutions. After careful review by legislative legal counsel, it is clear that both constitutions allow for the protection of religious beliefs under the First Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided that a state may impinge upon the practice of a sincere religious belief only if the state’s interest is of “sufficient magnitude” to justify overriding the religious belief. The Vermont Constitution provides that no authority shall interfere with the free exercise of religion.
In contrast, philosophical beliefs do not receive the same protections. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, since philosophical beliefs are based on a “subjective evaluation and rejection of the secular values accepted by the majority” they do not rise to the level of religious beliefs and thus, not eligible for the same protections. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that conduct that is “merely a matter of personal preference” does not rise to the demands of religious freedom.
Vermont, like every other state, requires children be vaccinated in order to enroll in school. There are reasons for this mandate. The most important reason is that without immunizations, our community could be plagued by serious, and sometimes fatal diseases that are avoidable. We’ve already seen an alarming rise in whooping cough cases in our state, and those numbers coincide with a high exemption rate.
Eliminating the philosophical exemption is not meant to infringe on parental rights. It’s meant to narrow the scope under which Vermonters can opt out of immunizations and ensure more children receive life-saving vaccines.
While we, as public servants, have an obligation to represent the views of our constituents, so too do we have an obligation to protect the people we serve. Sometimes that means making tough and often unpopular decisions. Passing S.199 to eliminate philosophical exemptions is a matter of public health and safety. It’s that simple.
SEN. KEVIN J. MULLIN
Response: A Matter of Freedom and Liberty
Freedom is the core principle of America. A legitimate government’s role is to ensure that freedom not to “save lives.” A government whose task is to “save lives” is a government that has no limitations.
“Saving lives” sounds nice but for the government to “‘save lives” it must threaten or initiate violence against innocent people. After all what do you think would happen if a parent declined not to apply for a remaining religious exemption? The parent’s child would be barred from school then the parent would be hauled before a court under threat of force for violating the state’s compulsory education laws. Hiding the specter of state-sponsored violence behind compulsory education laws does not mean the violence is not there.
Besides there is no evidence that the change brought about by this law will ever result in the saving of even one life.
As to a vaccine being “necessary” that’s silly. Food and water is necessary. A vaccine is not. In regards to your worry about one case of the measles, that’s mystifying. In the pre-vaccine era, the nation saw as many as four million cases per year. Yet parents were not “worried” about the illness. Worry about your own kids and we’ll worry about ours.
Free people can save lives. If they see mild illnesses such as the measles, mumps and chickenpox as threats they can choose to vaccinate.
As to your insistence that:
The most important reason is that without immunizations, our community could be plagued by serious and sometimes fatal diseases that are avoidable.This is preposterous. First the most common illnesses prevented by vaccine (at least for a few years) are all mild, not serious. Besides before widespread mandates polio, whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, mumps and rubella were all controlled by voluntary action.
Then there is your “alarm” over whooping cough. No one besides you and your allies in the public heath establishment is “alarmed” by whooping cough. This proposed legislation after all did not emerge from an overwhelming public demand terrified of whooping cough. And to connect the illness to a few vaccine exemptions is absurd. Perhaps when you were “studying the science behind the facts” you failed to come across the “fact” that the whooping cough vaccine is notoriously ineffective and (along with increased awareness) that ineffectiveness is what is driving so-called outbreaks occurring across the country. As to a rising in whooping cough coinciding with exemptions, did you, when playing scientific researcher, come across the principle that correlation does not equal causation. Or would that principle clash with your manufactured narrative undergirding your attempt to strip parents of their right to raise their children as they see fit?
Your remark that the bill will “ensure more children receive life-saving vaccines” is odd. Vaccines prevent generally mild illnesses and mortality from vaccine-preventable illnesses was in a virtual free-fall long before the advent of vaccination. As such the odds a child will receive a vaccine that actually saves his or her life is astronomically low. The life-saving vaccine mantra seems more spin than substance.
Asserting that, “passing S.199… is a matter of public health and safety,” raises the question of whether the people’s freedom can be taken for the nebulous concept of “public health and safety” It cannot unless a threat to that health and safety is the result of a rights violation perpetrated by another. Not vaccinating violates no rights and as such laws forcing the practice upon the unwilling do not come under the purview of government.
You then imagine you “have an obligation to protect the people you serve.” You do not; you have an obligation to protect people’s rights. There is a difference. When the government has the power to protect people it does so by hurting either them (for their own good of course) or others (in this case those who do not want medical treatments for their healthy children) When the government can only protect rights, no innocents are targeted - only those who, by their actions; for example reckless behavior, violence, theft, etc.; become the legitimate targets of government power.
The fundamental problem is you do not understand the concept nation was built on: freedom. Rather you are obsessed with and driven by concepts of collectivism, activism and paternalism.
It’s not your role to manage the health of those living in your state. Vermonters are people able to care for themselves, not pets reliant on your benevolent despotism.
There is one final establishment talking point (not raised here) that needs to be addressed: those too young for vaccines or those with poorly functioning immune systems or those undergoing chemotherapy rely on others for protection. First those concerned about a child being too young to get a vaccine can keep those children home rather than compel others (through the state) to act against their will to create a sterile world for them. Second, while it is terribly sad that some children have health issues their misfortune does not obligate others to act against their better judgment to protect them – especially when that level of protection is ill-defined and likely quite small.
Parents are certainly free to vaccinate based on the above line of reasoning but that action must be voluntary.
Stand up for freedom, Vermont. Reject this misguided legislation.
Robert J. Schecter